We are in the midst of a lull in Washington budget debates. The government shutdown and debt ceiling arguments of October are fading into memory, and the fight over the federal funding level and appropriations are still a couple of months away. So let’s take this time to look at the federal funding situation and what the next few months may hold for the federal budget and the scientific community.
Budget debates and brinksmanship
If it seems like the federal government is embroiled in a familiar budget debate every few months, that’s because it is. This year started with politicians pushing the fiscal-cliff debate up to the last minute before coming to an accord. Two months later, the debate was renewed over how to handle sequestration and establish federal spending for the rest of fiscal 2013. The summer provided a brief respite, but the debates returned again at the end of September. This time, the debate was not resolved prior to Oct. 1 and the start of FY14, prompting a government shutdown. Two weeks later, needing to raise the debt ceiling, Congress and President Obama agreed to another temporary fix to the federal government’s spending issues.
In the latest deal, two dates are important. First is Dec. 15. This is the deadline for a budget conference committee to come to an agreement on the level of funding for the federal government. Senate Democrats are advocating for a spending level at $1.058 trillion for FY14 while House Republicans are pushing for $967 billion. The House number would cause more cuts at science funding agencies while the Senate number, while not great, would allow for minimal increases to agency budgets.
Whereas the budget conference committee is supposed to decide the overall federal funding level, the appropriations committees determine how that money is spent. Jan. 15 is the deadline for the House and Senate to agree on appropriations for the rest of FY14. Jan. 15 is also when FY14 sequestration will take effect unless lawmakers can work out a deal to prevent these cuts.
Congress loves a deadline
Very little work tends to happen on legislation until either Democrats or Republicans feel that the pressure of a deadline gives them a negotiating advantage. Thus, while optimistic news is circulating about the work of this committee, nothing will be set until very close to Dec. 15. But what happens if the Dec. 15 comes and goes without an agreement? In a word—nothing.
The budget conference committee has until Dec. 15 to reach a deal, but this committee is not tasked with writing legislation. Their job is to hammer out a framework for funding the government in FY14 that both parties and both houses can agree to. So what happens if they can’t come to an agreement? Nothing. Nothing will shut down, nothing will go unfunded and no one will be furloughed if this committee fails. This committee does not allocate dollars to specific federal agencies. That is the job of the Senate and House appropriators, and the appropriators do not require the budget conference committee to succeed before writing their bills. It would be helpful and make negotiations on appropriations go smoother, but the work of the budget conference committee is not required.
So then what is the purpose of the budget conference committee if nothing will happen if it fails? Senate appropriations bills from earlier in the year assumed the funding level of the government would be $1.058 trillion, whereas House appropriators assumed it would be $967 billion. That’s $91 billion worth of disagreement between the Senate and the House. If the budget conference committee can come to an agreement on $1.058 trillion, $967 billion or somewhere in between, then appropriators in both houses will be working with the same spending limit, which will make reconciling differences between bills from both houses much easier and avoid another government shutdown come January.
What about science funding?
Federal science funding agencies have been dealing with long-term stagnant budgets and cuts due to sequestration. The National Institutes of Health could not fund 640 new grant applications and turned away around 750 patients from clinical trials because of sequestration. The National Science Foundation also had to cut several hundred new grants due to the cuts.
The work of the budget conference committee is important for scientists because it will give the community some idea of how to plan for the coming year. If the committee agrees to increase spending to $1.058 trillion for FY14, scientists can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that research funding agencies won’t have their budgets cut, and they may even increase. If the committee agrees to cut spending to $967 billion, then scientists will have to brace for continued cuts and an even scarcer funding environment.
How is the ASBMB working for you, the scientist paid from federal grants? The vast majority of members of Congress understand, at least superficially, the importance of scientific research and the role of the federal research funding. What is most effective in Congress are the stories of people affected by budget mismanagement in Washington. That is why the ASBMB released Unlimited Potential, Vanishing Opportunity in early August. This report told the stories of how budget cuts have affected scientists in all fields and at all career stages from across the country, and we made sure every Congressional office saw received a copy of it. The ASBMB also played a significant role in producing Faces of Austerity: How Budget Cuts Have Made Us Sicker, Poorer and Less Secure, a report chronicling the effects of federal budget cuts on scientists and many other constituencies that use federal money. Finally, the Office of Public Affairs at ASBMB continues to meet with members of Congress and the Obama administration to make the case that real scientists are losing jobs, choosing other career paths or moving to other countries rather than conducting research in the U.S.
Want to do your part? Contact your senators and representatives and tell them how budget cuts to federal science funding agencies have affected your career. If you don’t know how or want some help, contact the ASBMB Director of Public Affairs, Ben Corb, by email or phone (240.283.6625). You can also send a letter to the editor of your local newspaper explaining the effects of sequestration on research. Finally, follow the ASBMB Policy Blotter in order to stay on top of the latest in budget and science policy news!