What can we expect from the president’s budget?

And where is Congress this year on budget and sequestration?

Welcome to 2015 and the 114th Congress! In several important ways the budget dynamics are the same as we saw in the last session of Congress. We should not expect large spending increases for science programs. Wide partisan differences remain over budget and tax policy. We can expect Congress to continue to speak supportively of the work of the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health. And yet we should also be prepared for attacks on some behavioral and social science programs to re-emerge. 

What’s new: Republicans hold majorities in both houses of Congress, so legislation that died at the Senate’s door in past years may well pass now. The Senate majority is not “veto-proof” so it’s likely the administration will use its veto more than we have seen in the past six years. 

We can also expect the fights against sequestration to be amplified, at least by the administration and some lawmakers. President Obama will present his 2016 budget on Monday, Feb. 2, and it will assume an end to sequestration, as did his last budget. According to an unusual presidential blog published in Huffington Post: “In order to get wages and incomes rising faster, we need to take the next step. That's why my budget will fully reverse the sequestration cuts for domestic priorities in 2016. It will match those investments with equal dollar increases for defense funding. If Congress rejects my plan and refuses to undo these arbitrary cuts, it will threaten our economy and our military. Investments in key areas will fall to their lowest level in 10 years, adjusted for inflation, putting American research, education, infrastructure and national security at risk. But if Congress joins me, we can make sure that ending sequestration is fully paid for by cutting inefficient spending and closing tax loopholes.”

Some Republican lawmakers are pressing for an end to sequestration, primarily because of its effect on the defense budget. U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., new chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said last week, “The impacts of sequestration will not always be immediate or obvious. But the sky doesn't need to fall for military readiness to be eroded, for military capabilities to atrophy, or for critical investments in maintaining American military superiority to delayed, cut, or cancelled. These will be the results of sequestration's quiet and cumulative disruptions that are every bit as dangerous for our national security."

If sequestration is not repealed, the spending limit for discretionary programs (including the federal science agencies) will be approximately the same level that it was in FY 2015. A flat budget will significantly constrain Congress’ ability to provide much expansion to sustain progress in research, education or other critical domestic programs. 

The president’s budget is only one event in a months-long march to a final federal budget. Once the president’s budget is delivered to Capitol Hill, the appropriations committees will begin reviewing the details of the proposals and developing the 12 annual spending measures. The appropriations committees will be guided by a budget developed within the House and Senate budget committees. The president’s budget proposal will inform that process, but the congressional budget is written to conform to congressional priorities. 

While little is known about what the president’s budget will contain, last week’s State of the Union address offers some clues. The president announced a new “Precision Medicine Initiative” that seeks to identify and treat disease in patients based on details of their genome. Also, the White House will ask Congress to double the funding for combating and preventing antibiotic resistance to more than $1.2 billion. There will reportedly also be a request for substantial funding boosts for the Department of Defense.