A Tale of Two Budgets

by Planck on February 17, 2011

I’m going to write a bit about science funding, both in the President’s FY 2012 budget and in the yet-to-be-passed FY 2011 budget. But before I go into that, let me preface this piece with my honest opinion on the much bigger budget picture: President Obama has made a tactical mistake in the budget cutting game. Talk of austerity and the government acting like some sort of family balancing their budget buys into the Republican talking point that the main problem in the country right now is too much federal spending. That is false. The problem is unemployment. Unemployment being made worse by cuts in spending, both at the state and federal level. The problem, in my opinion, is that we had an insufficiently large stimulus bill skewed toward many tax cuts, and now we have stopped trying to use the government to create jobs and lower unemployment.

So, while we extend Bush-era tax cuts that add $858 Billion to the debt, we are talking about cutting discretionary spending. What is discretionary spending? Any thing that has to be appropriated every year. Some spending just happens automatically – like Medicare, Social Security, interest on the debt, etc. Other programs have money appropriated to them each year. Look at this graphic from the NY Times to see just where the federal government spends money. (I really would like a pie chart for FY 2012 but wasn’t able to find one).

As you can see, there isn’t much money there at all, outside the Defense Department. But that is where both the President, in his FY 2012 budget, and the Republicans, in the House of Representatives, are proposing to cut.

But before I write about the proposed budget for next year, I still have to write about last year’s budget. The federal government are currently operating under what’s called a continuing resolution that was passed last year. It will fund the government at FY 2010 levels through March 4. Basically this is a law that says “we couldn’t figure out how to spending money this year, so just go about your business like last year.” The Senate, in part due to unprecedented use of the filibuster which requires 60 votes to end debate, failed to pass a FY 2011 spending bill in the lame duck session.

So, 2011 begins, with a new Republican majority that has pledged to cut $100B from the FY 2011 budge, and you get what has been happening on the House floor this week. A proposal to fund the 2011 as a continuing resolution, but with retroactive cuts to numerous agencies. It’s that plan, last year’s FY 2011 continuing resolution with large cuts, that has now earned a threat of a presidential veto.

How does all this effect science? Nature does an excellent job summing it up. Specifically this chart shows both the requests for FY 2011 and 2012 as well as the House GOP’s proposal for FY 2011. For FY 2011, Space Policy Online breaks down the NASA numbers in the Republican continuing resolution. NASA science, not being specifically mentioned in the cuts, therefore maintains its FY 2010 funding – of $4.469 Billion. That is $536 million less than the President’s FY 2011 budget request. NASA as a whole loses $300M compared to FY 2010. NSF would lose about $280 million compared to FY 10.

Of course, this particular spending bill is unlikely to become law, as I mentioned, President Obama has threatened a veto, and it’s unlikely the Senate would go along with it either. This raises the possibility of a government shutdown, possibly as early as March 4.

The President’s proposals for FY 2012 show a strong increase of 13% over FY 2010 for NSF. NASA Science continues to be pretty flat. NASA Astrophysics is actually down $10 million from FY 2010. James Webb has been spun off into its own account, but Nature points out:

One science project that exemplified the uncertainty is the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, which an independent review found would cost at least $1.5 billion more than anticipated (see Nature 468, 353–354; 2010). The White House budget grants $374 million to the JWST for 2012, although the review revealed that the telescope would need $500 million over the next two years to meet an expected launch date of September 2015.

With the 2011 budget still in limbo, a 2015 launch date is unrealistic and could even slip past 2016, said JWST programme manager Rick Howard in a press briefing. The delay could mean further cost overruns for the mission.

Planetary science sees $120M more than FY 2010, but the growth seems mostly in the Mars exploration line, for MSL and Maven I believe.

The fight over the budget has just begun. We have a GOP-controlled House committed to slashing discretionary spending, and an administration that while may be using a scalpel rather than a butcher knife, has bought into the idea that we need to spend less. Meanwhile tax revenues are nearing historic lows, plenty of progressive ideas to trim the deficit are not mentioned (such as cutting the defense budget), and the American people want neither spending cuts or tax increases.

Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy year.

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