September 2013

Will this time be any different?

Large, green opening quotes
“Sequestration — and its unrealistic and ill-conceived discretionary cuts — must be brought to an end.”
—U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the U.S. House Appropriations CommitteeLarge, green closing quotes

Most Septembers and Octobers in Washington, D.C., for the past several years have been filled with angry rhetoric and finger pointing. This is because the government’s fiscal year ends on Sept. 30, and Congress and the president need to agree to a spending plan for the next fiscal year or risk a government shutdown. Thus, this time of year brings about rancorous debate over the size of the federal budget and the government’s spending priorities.
Despite all the tension, though, we often are left with spending bills that keep the budgets of most federal agencies unchanged. Most often, Congress passes continuing resolutions, which keep federal agencies funded at or near the levels in the previous fiscal year. While this prevents the government from shutting down, continuing resolutions take away Congress’ ability to increase funding to beneficial programs, such as those for science research, and cut programs that are deemed wasteful. After years of the same tired arguments and heated rhetoric from both political parties, most scientists and the general public are asking very important questions: Will we see yet another continuing resolution? Will the outcome this year be any different?
A new wrinkle to this process is sequestration. Sequestration of the fiscal 2013 budget resulted in significant cuts to most federal agencies, and the maximal FY14 spending allowable by law is lower than that of FY13. The degree to which programs need to be cut to fit under the spending caps has made some lawmakers throw up their hands in frustration. It’s this frustration that has given some political observers hope. Both the Democratic and Republican caucuses have fractured over the degree of government austerity and the indiscriminate nature of sequestration. These fractures offer an opportunity for lawmakers to have a serious discussion about making smart, targeted changes to the federal budget and avoiding across-the-board budget cuts.
One threat to this process, though, is a growing vocal caucus of Republicans who are opposed to funding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. This group of senators and representatives has vowed to vote against bills that provide funding for the health care law, while President Obama has threatened to veto any spending bill that defunds this program. Such an impasse would result in a government shutdown. Shutting down the government would be devastating for scientists, as all science-funding agencies would cease to function. Grant applications would not be reviewed, and the funds already dedicated to grants would not be disbursed.
American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology staffers and members have been conducting and will continue to conduct meetings with senators and representatives across the nation to urge them to come to an agreement that avoids a shutdown, overturns sequestration and improves funding for scientific research. The threat to shut down the government over funding the Affordable Care Act is a sideshow for now. But, if the debate shifts and centers on the health care law, then politicians will be fighting to simply find a way to keep the government operating, and there will be little hope for a new outcome to the budget debate. However, if the health care law remains a sideshow and the debate centers on making targeted cuts that eliminate government waste and increasing funds for beneficial programs, a grand bargain may emerge that eliminates sequestration and allows for the growth in the budgets of federal science-funding agencies. So will this year’s budget debate be any different from those in the past? Stay tuned.

Photo of Chris PickettChris Pickett ( is the senior science policy fellow at the ASBMB.

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