A First Look at the Debt Agreement and U.S. Research

The legislation President Barack Obama signed today to avert a government default offers few details on how the United States will achieve a now-mandated $917-billion cut to discretionary spending over the next decade. And while research funding is by no means exempt, there may yet be a silver lining for U.S. scientists in the Budget Control Act of 2011.

While lobbyists continue to chew on the details of the last-minute agreement to raise the debt ceiling, here are four aspects of the deal that could benefit science as Congress works its way through the 2012 budget cycle.

1) The agreement is much kinder to discretionary spending—the pot of money that includes every penny of federally funded research—than many lobbyists had feared. It basically freezes such spending for 2 years: The $1.050 trillion in 2011 would dip slightly to $1.043 trillion in 2012, before inching up to $1.047 trillion in 2012. Then it allows for annual boosts of $20 billion to $25 billion over the next decade. While that's hardly good news for researchers lobbying for the double-digit increases proposed by President Obama for some research agencies, it's a lot better than the Republican drive to roll back spending to 2008 levels.

2) The 2012 ceiling on discretionary spending is $24 billion higher than what the House of Representatives approved this spring for the fiscal year that starts on 1 October. While the Republican-led House has already passed a few spending bills at that lower level of $1.019 trillion, several bills are still pending. Although House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and the rest of the Republican leadership don't have to adjust their lower spending levels, the $24-billion gap between the new and old ceiling creates room for advocates to lobby for reconsideration of any program facing serious cuts or elimination. (The James Webb Space Telescope comes to mind.)

3) The Democratic-led Senate has yet to act on any 2012 appropriations. This agreement gives it an "extra" $24 billion to play with. Again, that's red meat for lobbyists.

4) The legislation serves as a "super" 2012 budget resolution that could speed the approval of specific spending bills. Normally, the annual budget resolution is a blueprint for what legislators plan to spend in a given year, and kicks off the appropriations process. Without one, Congress doesn't know how much to allocate to the 12 subcommittees in each house that control the purse strings of every federal agency. Last year, for example, the Senate never passed a budget resolution—and, as a result, never moved a single spending bill. That inaction contributed to the extended stalemate between the two houses on the 2011 budget that wasn't resolved until April, 6 months after the start of the fiscal year. The White House isn't normally a party to the congressional budget resolution. But this year, by signing onto that blueprint, the Administration has more skin in the budget game. That arrangement could allow Congress to finish off the 2012 budget before Christmas, or maybe even Thanksgiving.

We'll continue to report on the debt agreement, including the mandatory cuts that could be triggered in 2013 if the recommendations of a special joint congressional committee are ignored. In the meantime, let us know what you think the legislation could mean for U.S. science.