November 2 midterm elections marked a shift of power in Washington, D.C. The Republican Party wrested control of the U.S. House of Representatives from the Democrats, who had held power across both houses of Congress and the White House since President Barack Obama's election in 2008.
Just days after the midterm elections, a report from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and a related story in The New York Times examined what would happen to federal science agencies if the GOP carried through on their planned budget cuts. The 2010 Republican agenda, "A Pledge to America," proposed rolling back discretionary spending to 2008 levels, with exceptions for seniors and the military. (Discretionary spending makes up roughly one third of the federal budget; the rest goes to mandatory programs such as Social Security and Medicare.)
The plan, if executed, would cut more than $8 billion in federal research and development from what Obama had proposed for 2011, according to the AAAS analysis. Nearly $3 billion of that would come from the National Institutes of Health (NIH); NASA, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy would lose more than $1 billion apiece.
But how realistic are those kinds of cuts, considering that Democrats still control the Senate and the White House? To find out what the coming years have in store for science agencies, we spoke to Allen Schick, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, College Park.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
Do you think this campaign promise to roll back discretionary spending across the board to 2008 levels is feasible?
In the magnitude that they're talking about, cutting about $100 billion in nondefense spending, it's feasible, but it would generate an enormous amount of conflict between Democrats and Republicans, between the House and Senate, and most importantly within Republican ranks.
In other words, even Republicans who don't want to spend have things they want to spend on. One example might be the NIH, which has a big bioterrorism budget and a big cancer research budget.
Implementing these kinds of cuts would generate a lot of pressure. So I can't promise you that these cuts will materialize, certainly not to the degree that the Republicans have been talking about up to the election. That level would generate enormous conflicts.
What is a realistic scenario for these agency budgets?
At the very least, these budgets will be frozen. In other words, incremental increases that you get from year to year and the bigger increases that some of them got during the Obama period, those are out the window for at least the next year.
If you look at 1994 to 1996 as a precedent, you see an interesting pattern. In the period immediately after the [midterm] election, appropriations were cut, and that generated a lot of conflict. But after Clinton was elected to his second term, things normalized somewhat. That could be where we're headed here.
One of the cards that Obama has is that the Republicans do not want to be blamed for a shutdown of government. When that happened last time [1995–1996], it worked against them.
Can we expect to see conflicts between the House and Senate on these issues?
Well, we've had that problem in the last few years, even when the Democrats controlled the House and the Senate. Those two chambers are wired fundamentally differently. In the House the majority always wins, except in those rare circumstances where the majority is fractured. And the Republicans have a big margin now, so they don't have to worry about that—at least not right away.
The Senate is a very different story. You look at so much recent legislation—the health care legislation, financial services legislation, appropriations legislation—the biggest conflicts in recent years have been between the House and the Senate.
How much leverage does the president have in terms of resolving conflicts between the houses of Congress?
Well, he has veto power, which can be very powerful. And he has what is called the bully pulpit. He can tell the American people, "Look how they're devastating the crown jewel of biomedicine at the NIH," or "For America to prosper we need to retain our scientific lead, and the Republicans are squandering it."
He does have some weapons, but given the deficit and the election returns, this president is not going to be able to come up with a budget that shows big increases, as he did the past two years.
As for the budget that is in the works now, some of these science agencies already have authorization bills but not appropriations bills. Does that protect them from budget cuts at all?
No. First of all, some agencies have expired authorizations. And in terms of appropriated funds, the authorizations are only a hunting license to get appropriations. You can't cash in a discretionary authorization. The amount of money you have to spend is the amount appropriated.
What happens after the appropriations bills come through?
In past situations like this, for example when Clinton was president, you can look for what you call "niche initiatives". A niche is an isolated program where you can say that you're doing something at $10 million, $20 million, and you can issue a daily press release on each of these initiatives, but they don't add up to a lot of money. It's very different from Congress, say, giving the NIH a $5-billion increase.
I think you're going to see a lot of these niche programs for this kind of research or that kind of scientific endeavor or this kind of infrastructure. In the face of cuts, it looks like you're doing something. In Congress they call them sweeteners—a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.
Americans want to get rid of the deficit, they want smaller government, but they want bigger benefits from government. So the niche programs are kind of a way of reconciling these conflicting views.
If you were working for one of these agencies that relies on discretionary funding, how would you be feeling right now?
I'd be feeling nervous. An agency with a frozen budget regards it as a cutback, because certain expenses rise, such as payroll. In the scientific area, which is different than a lot of the rest of government, most of the money goes out the door in the form of grants and contracts. So what we might call intramural research—the research done inside the NIH—is a small part of the NIH budget. So what you can see is that the people who would be worried the most are the recipients of these grants and contracts, like universities or medical centers.
So freezing or even cutting these budgets somewhat will have an impact across the country?
That's right. The effect is not going to be isolated inside the Beltway.