Recess in Washington; Congress winding down pre-recess budget negotiations

I’m headed off to the MAA’s MathFest and thought it a good time to give you an update on budget proceedings in Washington.

The month of August is traditionally a congressional recess, meaning that Representatives and Senators are in their home states and districts, spending much time with their constituents. You’ve probably read the news, that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is pushing back the start of the month-long recess for his colleagues, so that Senators can have time to work on health care legislation and other pressing matters. August recess was codified in the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 and the last time the Senate delayed its recess was in 1994; then too the reason was to work on health care reform. The House is taking recess as planned; and we shall see what really happens Senate-side. Things seem a bit up in the air, to put it mildly.

In any case, you may well be reading this because you hope to hear how the appropriations process is unfolding this year. The last time I wrote about this the FY2017 budget process was not yet over, and President Trump had released his budget blueprint for FY2018. On May 23, the President’s full budget was released. (Both the blueprint and full budget are found at the White House budget page). This proposal is devastating for mathematics, and indeed for much of scientific research and discovery.

The President’s budget proposed an 11.2% cut to the NSF. If adopted, this funding will support approximately 8,000 new research grants, with an estimated funding rate of 19%. For comparison, in FY 2016, NSF funded 8,800 new research grants, with a funding rate of 21%. Rep. Bill Foster (IL 11) – the only physicist in Congress – issued a statement on the NSF’s reported cuts if the President’s FY2018 Budget Request takes effect, estimating that 13,000 researchers, professionals, and students could be affected by the proposed budget cuts.

The Administration is seeking deep cuts to science agencies as part of a broader decrease in non-defense spending. This would offset a proportional increase in defense spending to fund the Administration’s planned military and border security projects.

The President’s budget is simply a guide, and it has not been received warmly in Congress. The next step is for each of the House and Senate to come to their own budget proposals, and then for these to be reconciled. The House has finished their work; the Senate is just getting started. While the House bill is not as damaging to the scientific enterprise as the President’s – it proposes a 2% cut across the board – it still is not good news. The NSF’s main research account would be flat funded under the House bill. This would be the second year in a row without an increase for research and will compromise America’s leadership position in scientific discovery and innovation.

The Senate has yet to consider the part of the budget that includes funding for the NSF; this is expected to occur this week. The Senate has allocated 53.36 billion dollars for Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies (CJS), which is actually below the 53.94 billion approved by the House; not a good starting point. This CJS money must be divvied up amongst agencies including the NSF, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

As appropriations negotiations move from the House to the Senate, it is important to note that the House CJS bill is constrained by sequestration-level spending caps. With other countries increasing their levels of research investment (including a proposed doubling of investment in the EU), now is not the time for the United States to reduce its investment in research. The AMS has signed on to letters sent to key Senators urging them to work toward a budget agreement that removes the budget caps. Support for raising budget caps is bipartisan: the Tuesday Group Caucus, a centrist Republican group in the House, has sent a letter to Speaker Paul Ryan with concerns about the FY2018 budget process. The group wants to lift spending caps which would, in turn, allow spending levels for agencies like the NSF to be increased.  Indeed, Rep. John Culbertson (TX 7), chair of the CJS subcommittee that considers NSF budgets, has fought to protect the NSF and promised to increase its funding if the spending caps are raised. Rep. David Price (NC 4) has also spoken out on increasing the NSF budget.

About Karen Saxe

Since January 1, 2017, Karen Saxe is Director of the Washington Office of the AMS which works to connect the mathematics community with Washington decision-makers who impact science funding. Before joining the AMS, Karen was DeWitt Wallace Professor in the Department of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Over many years she has contributed time to the AMS, MAA, and AWM, including service as vice president of the MAA and in policy and advocacy work with all three. She was the 2013-2014 AMS-AAAS Science & Technology Policy Congressional Fellow, working for Senator Al Franken on education issues, with focus on higher education and STEM education. In Minnesota she has served on the Citizens Redistricting Commission following the 2010 census and serves on the Common Cause Minnesota Redistricting Leadership Circle. She has three children and, when not at work especially enjoys being with them and reading, hiking, skiing, and sharing good food and wine and beer with family and friends.
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