Data check: How U.S. budget deal turns $30 billion into $3 billion

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Data check: How U.S. budget deal turns $30 billion into $3 billion

Get your money this year—because federal spending in 2017 may feel very tight. That message for U.S. scientists is buried in the new 2-year budget agreement that President Barack Obama signed this week.

The Obama administration and the Republican-led Congress struck a surprise deal late last month to prevent the U.S. government from defaulting on its loans and fund operations through the fall of 2017. The agreement adds $50 billion this year and $30 billion next year to caps on discretionary spending imposed by a 2011 law intended to reduce the federal deficit over the next decade (see graph, below). That law, called the Budget Control Act (BCA), led in 2013 to sequestration, those across-the-board, arbitrary cuts that nobody thinks are a good mechanism to determine funding levels.

The $50 billion jump will represent a 5% increase in overall discretionary spending for 2016. In 2017, however, the added $30 billion will boost overall discretionary federal spending by only $3 billion—a 0.3% rise that won’t even keep pace with inflation.

What’s the catch? The $30 billion is only the increase over the spending levels laid down in the 2011 budget law. It is NOT the amount added to the 2016 spending level. So the deal delivers “basically flat funding in 2017 from a higher baseline,” says Matthew Hourihan, a budget analyst for AAAS (publisher of Science) in Washington, D.C. But there’s a silver lining, he adds: The agreement locks in “a cumulative 4% increase in [discretionary] spending over 2 years. That's not bad.”

CREDITS: (GRAPHIC) M. ATAROD; (DATA SOURCE) U.S. CONGRESS

Although Congress must still decide on 2016 spending levels for science funding agencies, many research groups have already lined up behind the new deal. “We are very encouraged …  It provides much needed breathing room,” said Washington, D.C.–based United for Medical Research, a coalition that backs increased biomedical research spending, in a statement.

Still, many science advocates say the deal highlights the continuing dysfunction of the federal budget process, which has lurched from crisis to crisis with no end in sight. The agreement was struck behind closed doors by a handful of White House aides and congressional leaders from both parties. Then it was rammed through Congress within a few days on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, passing with unanimous Democratic support despite the opposition of most Republicans, who hold majorities in both houses of Congress.

The new agreement may be the most anyone could expect in an era of hyperpartisan politics. And it’s only a temporary solution. The deal postpones but does eliminate the BCA spending caps, which will go back into effect in 2018 unless an alternative is found. If not, discretionary spending would dip by $6 billion in 2018. That projected drop could trigger another high-stakes spending debate between Congress and the next president.

In the meantime, Congress’s appropriations panels must decide by early December on how to allocate the additional $50 billion they’ve gotten for 2016. (The new agreement requires the increase each year to be spread evenly between the civilian and military sectors, although in a separate account it provides an additional $32 billion for ongoing war activities.) Those decisions are likely to have long-lasting consequences for scientists, because whatever levels lawmakers approve in the coming weeks are likely to be extended through the 2017 fiscal year. (Something similar happened earlier this year, under a 2-year agreement struck in 2013 to avert a similar budget-debt crisis.)

The bottom line: The sighs of relief that have initially greeted that seemingly hefty $30 billion growth in spending for 2017 may turn to grumbles when researchers realize it translates into just a $3 billion pimple.