Budget caps continue to create problems during appropriations process

US House and Senate appropriators are in full swing working on the FY16 appropriations measures. It is increasingly clear that the restrictive caps on discretionary spending imposed by the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011 are creating serious problems. The BCA contained two different mechanisms to achieve spending reductions, both commonly referred to as the “sequester.” The deficit reduction sequester required nine annual sequesters of $109 billion – half from defense and half from non-defense programs – to reduce the deficit by $1.2 trillion. The first of these annual sequesters took effect in March 2013. The BCA also mandated separate discretionary sequesters if appropriations for any year exceed the annual caps set by the law. 

The first year of sequestration resulted in automatic, across the board cuts to agencies and programs in the discretionary part of the federal budget. Since then, the sequestration cuts have been included as part of the appropriations process. Although the exact amount sequestered has been subject to negotiation over different budget cycles, the effect is that sequestration negatively impacts key areas important to research universities, including federally supported scientific research, student aid, and health care. The sequester principle were in included in Congress’ FY16 Budget Resolution, which serves as guidance to appropriators. 

On Wednesday, June 3, the House passed the FY2016 Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations bill (H.R.2578) on a mostly party-line vote of 242 to 183. This legislation would provide $7.4 billion for the National Science Foundation (NSF), $50 million above the FY2015 level. The $50 million increase would be solely directed to Research and Related Activities (R&RA). The report to accompany this legislation would direct NSF to “ensure that Mathematical and Physical Sciences; Computer and Information Science and Engineering; Engineering; and Biological Sciences comprise no less than 70 percent of the funding within R&RA.” By some estimates this would be a cut of $250 million, or 16%, for these two directorates. UO has joined with other universities in asking the Senate to oppose these cuts. Senate Democrats are adding to the pressure to raise the caps by threatening to vote against any appropriations bills that stay within the caps, while President Obama continues to insist that he will veto any funding bills that do the same.

The Association of American University provides updates on the federal budget process here.