Today, U.S. House Republicans released their 10-year budget plan. Similar to recent budgets, this plan proposes to balance the federal budget in eight years. And similar to previous plans, this balance is achieved through spending cuts and reforms to mandatory spending programs such as Medicare.
These budget plans rarely become law, but they do provide a blueprint for Congressional appropriators. As a reminder, Congress appropriates money on a yearly basis to all federal agencies. This is termed discretionary spending. Science funding agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and others, are considered nondefense discretionary spending. Defense and nondefense discretionary spending is roughly equal, and in the Budget Control Act of 2011, Congress and President Obama agreed that the defense and nondefense budgets would share equally in budget cuts and increases.
However, the budget plan released today violates the agreement of parity between the defense and nondefense budgets, making significant cuts to the nondefense side of the ledger. The budget would cut nondefense discretionary spending by $33 billion (6.7 percent) in FY17 and by another $8 billion (1.7 percent) in FY18. The budget plan then calls for a roughly 1.3 percent yearly increase in nondefense spending until FY25.
For scientists, these nondefense spending cuts are quite concerning. Budget plans such as the one released today rarely itemize the proposed budgets of various agencies. However, the NIH budget is the largest nondefense budget in the federal government. Thus, cuts to the NIH budget, and possibly the budgets of other federal science funding agencies, are far more likely than increases under such an austere budget plan. Even the growth in nondefense spending after FY18 will probably not be enough to offset inflation.
To be clear, though, the sky is not falling. The U.S. Senate budget resolution is yet to be released, and it may hold better news for those that depend on nondefense discretionary spending. Additionally, budgets provide a blueprint for Congressional appropriators, but since these budgets rarely become law, appropriators can choose whether or not to follow them. Furthermore, even if House and Senate appropriators choose to follow this austere budget, Obama has repeatedly stated that he will not endorse any plan that raises defense spending at the expense of nondefense spending.
Today’s budget release should concern scientists as this is a first step in a long-term budgeting process. And it is a step that does not appear favorable for science funding. However, just how this process will play out is not clear. The path the Senate will take and how Congress works with Obama on these issues is not known. Follow the ASBMB Policy Blotter as we keep a watchful eye on this process and other science policy issues.