Spending, deficits and the debt limit – “We watch so you don’t have to.”

302(b) allocations are explained, and Sen. Coburn decamps from the Gang of Six deficit talks.

We in the Science Government Relations Office love to read summary and wrap-up articles like “Confused About ‘Survivor?’ We Watch So You Don’t Have To.” In that spirit, we are happy to shoulder the burden of helping busy scientists make sense of all the deficit cutting players, plans and threats. The important thing to remember, as if you could forget, is: federal spending on science matters. Supporting scientific research is a key function of the federal government, not a function that can fall primarily to states, localities, or the private sector. Decreases in funding translate into less science or fewer scientists or both. If you agree with that statement, then how the federal government works out ‘discretionary spending’ (that is, non-entitlement spending) is a matter of keen interest. Lots of tectonic plates are shifting this year.

There are several pieces of news about the various threads in play this week. First, the framework for the Fiscal Year 2012 appropriations has been adopted. The House Appropriations Subcommittees have each been allocated the amount they will have to work with for the bills now being drafted. These allocations are called “302(b)s.” The 302(b) allocations are based on a discretionary spending cap of $1.019 trillion, a figure that is consistent with the parameters established by the House budget resolution. That amount will force significant reductions in funding below the FY 2011 levels for non-security programs. The Labor-HHS allocation (which must stretch to cover the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Education programs, and many others) is $139 billion--$18 billion (13 percent) less than FY 2011 and $41.5 billion (30 percent) less than the President’s request. As expected, the discretionary cap is consistent with Chairman Ryan’s budget: $1.019 trillion.

“Gang of Six” Now Five

There is a long tradition in Congress of informal working groups that try to tackle problems in a bipartisan manner outside the formal committee structure. The “Gang of Six” (three Democrats, three Republicans) in the Senate has been working on a long-term deficit reduction strategy for several months. Many seasoned observers gave good odds that this group would release a plan that had a real chance of gaining majority support. That’s been thrown into question by yesterday’s exit from the Gang of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) a physician with strong conservative credentials, over the issue of entitlement spending cuts.

Members of both parties want to put deficit reduction measures in place before they vote on raising the debt ceiling: Congress is facing an early August deadline to raise the $14.3 trillion cap on federal borrowing. Many Republicans say mandatory (entitlement) programs — including Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid — must be cut in order to balance the budget. Democrats want Republican lawmakers to agree to some tax increases to help reduce the deficit. The Gang’s deal in the works would have forged a compromise: Republicans would have to accept some tax increases, and Democrats would have to accept entitlement changes.

Of course the Gang of Six wasn’t the only game in town – will negotiations being led by Vice President Biden be more successful? Check back with us in the next week for an update on the proposals in the Biden group and more information about the Fiscal Year 2012 budget and appropriations process.