Created by on 8/2/2011 12:00:00 AM

After several weeks of partisan sniping, brinksmanship, multiple televised press conferences, and a series of failed votes in both the House and Senate, Congress and President Obama finally reached a deal on a proposal to raise the federal debt ceiling and address the country’s $14 trillion deficit. On July 31st, news emerged that House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and President Barack Obama had agreed on a plan to immediately increase the nation’s debt limit by $900 billion and give the White House the authority to raise it again in early 2012 without Congress having to take a second vote before the November 2012 elections. The House passed the bill (S 365) 269-161 on August 1st, and the Senate was expected to approve it by mid-day on August 2nd, allowing the President to sign the legislation immediately. The two-part nature of the agreement provides stability for the financial markets and will prevent the U.S. from defaulting on its obligations.
In addition to raising the debt ceiling, the compromise calls upon Congress to make a serious attempt at constraining federal spending. Both the House and Senate will have to vote sometime between October 1st and the end of 2011 on a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. Furthermore, the agreement establishes strict overall limits on discretionary spending (the portion of the budget that funds medical and scientific research) for the next two years. The cap is set at $1.043 trillion in FY 2012 and $1.047 trillion in 2013, with a “firewall” that prohibits lawmakers from cutting non-security spending in order to increase security/defense spending. However, that “firewall” does not apply after FY 2013, and the limit for non-security programs in 2012 is approximately four percent less than the overall 2011 funding level. It is too early to determine specifically how funding for the federal science agencies will be affected in 2012 given that some of the appropriations bills have already been passed by the House.
The final agreement also mandates that lawmakers find an additional $1.5 to $1.8 trillion in savings over nine years (through FY 2021). A special committee of twelve members of Congress (three Democrats and three Republicans from both the House and Senate) will be appointed to make recommendations about which programs will be cut and by how much. The panel’s suggestions would be subject to a vote without amendment by the end of 2011. If Congress doesn’t enact at least $1.2 trillion in spending reductions by January 1, 2013, all federal programs will be subjected to across-the-board cuts (split equally between security/defense and non-security spending).
Whatever cuts are made in 2012 (and beyond) will have to garner support from President Obama who has been very clear that he wants to continue the federal investment in research. On July 25th, during a televised press conference to update the nation on the status of the ongoing negotiations over raising the federal debt ceiling, the President mentioned medical research as one of five specific investments that must continue even as the country attempts to reduce the deficit. Arguing for a balanced approach to deficit reduction, Obama said “We all want a government that lives within its means, but there are still things we need to pay for as a country – things like new roads and bridges; weather satellites and food inspection; services to veterans and medical research.” FASEB immediately sent a letter to the White House thanking the President for his continued support of the federal investment in medical research and issued a press release highlighting the acknowledgment of the importance of research funding in Obama’s remarks.
While the Congressional leadership devoted their efforts to negotiating a compromise on the debt ceiling, lawmakers in both chambers attempted to work on the fiscal year (FY) 2012 appropriations measures. The House passed HR 2354 to fund the Department of Energy Office of Science, and the Senate finished consideration of the Military-Construction/Veterans Affairs legislation (HR 2055) that supports the Medical and Prosthetics Research Program (see related articles in this newsletter). Unfortunately, on July 21st the House Appropriations Committee announced that the subcommittee mark-up of the Labor, Health & Human Services (LHHS) Appropriations bill that had been scheduled for July 26th had been postponed due to the ongoing debt ceiling discussions. The new mark-up date has not yet been announced, but Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) said that the LHHS bill will not be considered until after the House comes back from the August recess. No further work on any of the remaining unfinished FY 2012 funding bills (including the Commerce, Justice, Science measure) is expected to take place until September.

With lawmakers getting ready to depart Washington for their summer break, FASEB will increase our outreach to elected officials in their home states. Please stay tuned for announcements about events at research institutions in key Congressional districts, opportunities to participate in “town hall” meetings organized by Senators and Representatives, letter writing campaigns to local newspapers, e-action alerts, and other ways to get involved in FASEB’s efforts.