Donald J. Trump

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Trump’s 2018 budget will squeeze civilian science agencies

The chunk of the federal budget that includes most of the U.S. government’s spending on basic science would shrink by 10.5% in 2018 under a plan outlined today by President Donald Trump and administration officials.

It is unlikely that all civilian science budgets would see cuts under the proposal—and some could even get increases. But the spending blueprint, which would have to be approved by Congress, highlights the financial pressures that civilian research agencies will face as Trump and the Republican majority in both houses of Congress attempt to carry out campaign promises to raise defense spending while reining in the rest of federal spending.

White House officials said today that they will ask Congress to increase discretionary defense spending by $54 billion, to $603 billion, in the 2018 fiscal year which begins 1 October. They expect to pay for that increase by cutting an equivalent amount from nondefense discretionary spendingthe part of the budget that includes major basic research funders.  That means a potential squeeze on the $31 billion National Institutes of Health, the $7 billion National Science Foundation, the $5 billion Office of Science at the Department of Energy, as well as all other civilian science programs.

To reach its defense spending goal, however, the White House will need to persuade Congress to change a 2011 law, known as the Budget Control Act (BCA), that was designed to maintain a balance between military and civilian spending. It places a binding cap on discretionary spending, which accounts for roughly one-third of the $3.5 trillion that the federal government spends annually (the other two-thirds goes to entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security, other kinds spending required by law, and paying interest on the national debt). In 2018, that cap is $549 billion for discretionary defense spending, $54 billion below Trump’s plan. The ceiling for nondefense discretionary spending is $515 billion.

The White House has not said exactly how it would reduce nondefense spending by $54 billion to the targeted $461 billion, but has promised to slash foreign aid, the Environmental Protection Agency, and programs that address climate change. Those details will emerge from negotiations between Trump budget officials and the civilian agencies, which have been asked to propose ways to tighten spending. The White House has said it will send an outline of its spending proposal to Congress on 16 March, with greater detail coming in following months.

The plan is already drawing complaints from members of Congress. Some Republicans are criticizing the defense increase as too small, and some Democrats have vowed to fight spending cuts and block any change to the 2011 law that does not increase nondefense spending. Changing the BCA could require 60 votes in the Senate, meaning eight of the body’s Democrats or Independents would have to join with the Senate’s 52 Republicans.