Congress's New Budget Ceiling: Hard on Research?

Dividing along party lines, Congress narrowly approved a Republican budget resolution on 15 April that would limit federal spending to $1.7 trillion in 2000. If strictly enforced, the ceiling would require cuts in domestic programs, including major civilian agency R&D budgets. According to a projection by analyst Kei Koizumi of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (publisher of Science), adherence to this plan would require civilian research agencies to cut back by 6% to 14% over the next 5 years, although education research would grow. But both Democrats and Republicans are looking for ways to get around the strict limits.

The current budget system, adopted in 1997 to bring down the budget deficit, is controlled by "spending caps" that limit appropriations in broad categories defined by Congress. But with the economy booming and the deficit replaced by a surplus, many lawmakers think the caps are too rigid. Among Republicans, the most outspoken critics are those who chair the appropriations committees--and they're critical for a reason. As authors of spending bills, they must deal directly with constituencies seeking increases in federal programs, and they will find it hard to defend cuts at a time when federal revenues are running ahead of outlays.

"I don't think we can live under these caps," Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK), chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said last week. And Representative John Porter (R-IL), chair of the House subcommittee that drafts the appropriation bill for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), blasted the caps as unrealistic. Speaking before a meeting of the National Health Council, a biomedical interest group, in Washington, D.C., Porter said that he wanted to raise NIH funding by 15% this year--just as Congress did last year. But this will be impossible if the budget caps are left in place. Porter said that both Democrats and Republicans want to change the rules, but neither wants to be the first to propose it. "In the end," Porter predicted, "the White House and Congress will sit down and quietly raise the caps."

Democrats were harsher. For example, Representative George Brown of California, ranking Democrat on the House Science Committee, was quick to pounce on what he saw as an irony in the budget resolution: The bad news, Brown said, is that it "treats R&D very poorly," and "the good news is that this budget is almost entirely irrelevant."