Scientists with grant awards from a federal science funding agency depend on the agency to follow through on its obligation to make payments on these awards. But payment depends on the government having sufficient cash to satisfy its obligations. While normally not a problem, a breach of the government’s debt ceiling could put these and many other federal payments in jeopardy.
Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew reported to Congress that the government will reach its debt ceiling on Feb. 27. Once reached, the government will be unable to borrow money and can only use the cash on hand to pay its bills. Should the government miss a payment on any of its obligations, global confidence in America’s fiscal security would falter and potentially devastate the global economy. So where’s all the Congressional fanfare? The doom-and-gloom predictions? The hand wringing and hysteria over the potential collapse of the global economy?
The answer is a combination of exhaustion and elections. With regard to exhaustion, members of both parties and both houses have shied away from high-profile fiscal debates since the government shutdown in October. The shutdown bruised the images of both parties and has forced conservatives and liberals into a functional, if uneasy, working relationship. This newfound willingness to avoid fiscal arguments and work together produced December’s bipartisan budget agreement and January’s bipartisan passage of fiscal 2014 appropriations. Furthermore, President Obama has stated that he will not negotiate over raising the debt ceiling nor will he accept any onerous provisions attached to raising the ceiling. This has produced the White House’s desired effect of damping political arguments over the deadline with a nearly clean version of a debt ceiling increase expected to pass with bicameral and bipartisan support.
With regard to elections, both parties are looking toward the midterm elections looming in November and are interested in engaging in debates in which they feel they can win. This is why members of both parties have decided to let fiscal debates, which are often rancorous with few if any winners, fly under the radar. Instead, representatives and senators have opted to voice their concerns over, for example, the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, immigration reform, unemployment insurance and raising the minimum wage.
Raising the debt ceiling will allow the federal government to pay its bills on time. This includes fulfilling payments to scientists who have secured a grant award from any federal science funding agency, like the National Institutes of Health. Follow the ASBMB Policy Blotter to for more coverage of federal fiscal debates that affect scientists.