August 8th, 2011, by Abby Benson  

Week in Review, or Debt Deal Revealed

I’ll be taking a cue from Congress and enjoying a recess of my own over the next month. Follow me on Twitter (@NEWSciPol) for timely updates, and keep an eye out for my next Week in Review on September 6th.

The big news from last week was that Democrats and Republicans finally reached a debt limit/deficit reduction agreement, the Budget Control Act. The House passed the legislation on Monday, followed by the Senate on Tuesday, and President Obama signed the bill into law that same day. The details of the agreement are now well known, but the impact it will have on research will depend on a number of factors described below. I’ll give you the basics of the agreement as I understand them, but urge you to take a look at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities summary of the Budget Control Act if you’re interested in learning more.

The agreement allowed the debt ceiling to be raised immediately by $400 billion, and will allow another increase of $500 billion as long as Congress gives the OK after a vote (expected to pass) likely sometime in September. This two-step increase will carry the government through the end of 2013, and most importantly through the next election. The agreement also sets out caps on discretionary spending (where most research funding is drawn from) that will generate roughly $1 trillion in deficit reduction over the next 10 years. Research spending will likely fare well in FY 2012, as the spending cap outlined in the bill is actually higher than the level the House has been using in its appropriations process. Things will get dicey in FY 2013, however, as the process described below unfolds.

The agreement also calls for the formation of a bipartisan, bicameral committee that will aim to identify another $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction. This committee will consider all spending, including discretionary, mandatory (e.g., Medicare), and potential revenue increases (e.g., raising taxes). This committee will make recommendations by November 23rd, and the full Congress will vote on its recommendations by December 23rd.

If the committee isn’t able to reach an agreement on at least $1.2 trillion  in spending cuts, a “trigger” will implement across the board domestic and defense spending cuts of up to $1.2 trillion beginning in FY 2013, with certain programs protected, such as Social Security, Medicare, and Veteran’s benefits. While the actual formula for cuts would be implemented by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), these reductions would range, according to various expert estimates, between 7% and 12%.  These are significant cuts, with the idea that the prospect of such cuts should motivate the committee to succeed.

The members of the joint committee should be announced by mid-August, which will give some insight into how research will be treated in this process. If the trigger mechanism is used, research funding would likely see a reduction to around FY 2007/FY 2008 levels in FY 2013, with no real increases in sight for the following eight years.

Finally, the plan requires both the House and Senate to vote on a balanced budget constitutional amendment by the end of the year. The plan does not, however, make the debt limit increase contingent on passage of the amendment.

So it will be a busy fall, with much more revealed as the committee process gets underway. Perhaps Friday night’s announcement by Standard & Poors that it has downgraded the U.S. credit rating, citing “political risks and rising debt burden,” will inspire bipartisanship in the coming months.

Also of Note

Congress. The House of Representatives lost a champion for science and technology this week when Rep. David Wu (D-OR) made his resignation official. Wu, a member of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, resigned in the wake of accusations of an “unwanted sexual encounter” with a teenager. Politico reports that Wu included in his statement, “particularly meaningful to me has been working for more and better investments in science and education.”

Defense. President Obama has nominated Ashton B. Carter to be the next Deputy Secretary of Defense. Carter is currently the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology & Logistics (AT&L), and in this role he oversees the Department of Defense’s research and technology programs. His successor in AT&L has not yet been named.

Health. A new rule, proposed last year by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), called for increased transparency of potential conflicts of interest that could unduly influence National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded research. A key component of this rule was to be the requirement that potential conflicts be posted on a website for up to five years. Nature reported this week, however, that this requirement has been removed from consideration. According to Nature, agencies will still be required to disclose potential conflicts, but may choose how to do so. The Association of American Universities (AAU) and the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) had objected to the requirement, citing cost and administrative burden, as well as potential for misunderstanding by the public. Several watchdog groups are upset by this change, as is Senator Grassley (R-IA) who wrote to OMB this week demanding that the website provision remain in the final rule.  The final rule has not yet been issued.

Patent reform. Senate Majority Leader Reid announced last week that the Senate will consider the America Invents Act, the major pending patent reform legislation, first thing when the Senate returns after recess.

In Print

House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice-Johnson (D-TX) authored an op-ed in the Huffington Post on how Investing in Our Future Is the Best Way to Fix the Nation’s Economy Over the Long Run. In this piece, Johnson argues for increased investment in research and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education.

The Scientist reports on how the Debt Ceiling Bill May Hurt Science. While the article acknowledges that it is too soon to know the real impact of the debt deal, it’s subtitle states “The bill to raise the debt ceiling and reduce the deficit would slash billions of dollars for basic scientific and medical research.”

A piece in Bloomberg News titled “Alzheimer’s Research Among Science Efforts at Stake in Debt Deal” describes how the debt limit agreement could impact not only research on Alzheimer’s at NIH, but also the broader scientific enterprise.

Teryn Norris, President of Americans for Energy Leadership, wrote an op-ed in the Huffington Post stating that America Needs a New Vision. In this piece, Norris states “The specifics are debatable, but the outlines are clear: rebuilding our infrastructure, reforming science and math education, and strengthening innovation and manufacturing in advanced industries.”

What’s On Deck

August is traditionally a quiet time in Washington with Congress in recess and the rest of the city on vacation to escape the heat. As mentioned above, I’ll be taking my own recess until Congress reconvenes on September 5th. I will also use this time to reflect on the first six months of NEWScience Policy, and as always welcome any feedback from my readers. You can also follow me on Twitter (@NEWSciPol) for timely updates throughout the month. Happy August!

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