The House and Senate have taken their first steps in the FY 2009 appropriations cycle. While the initial targets for proposed science funding are very favorable, the overall picture is considerably more troubled. As they did last year, the House and Senate are on a pathway to spend more for discretionary programs than what President Bush has proposed, setting up what will in all likelihood be another series of presidential vetoes and an unfavorable appropriations outcome.
The process of determining a budget resolution - a nonbinding congressional spending and taxing "blueprint" - is something that would appear to matter only to those working on Capitol Hill. It matters. The additional $22 - $23 billion for discretionary spending that Congress wanted to spend last year, and President Bush's refusal to spend any more than what he had originally requested resulted in an almost three-month delay in the final passage of the FY 2008 appropriations legislation. When the budget cycle was completed a few days before Christmas, the widely-expected double-digit increases in the budgets for the DOE Office of Science, National Science Foundation, and the research programs of the National Institute of Standards and Technology had vanished. It can be argued that the breakdown in the appropriations cycle last fall and winter can be traced directly to the initial $22 - $23 billion difference between the Congress and President when the budget resolution was being formulated last spring.
THE BAD NEWS:
The first step in the new FY 2009 budget cycle seems to be following last year's pattern. While the House and Senate will have to settle on a final concurrent budget resolution after they return to Washington next week, the parameters for discretionary spending appear to be largely in place. The Senate voted to spend $21.8 billion more than what the President requested. The House figure is $25.4 billion above the President's request. If the two chambers split the difference, the final spending target will be $23.6 billion about President Bush's limit, echoing last year's budget impasse.
While this outcome is not fixed in place, the general sentiment in Washington is that the probability of concluding the FY 2009 budget cycle by its start on October 1 is very slim. There is a widespread consensus that Congress and President Bush will find it necessary to use a series of stopgap funding bills to maintain program spending in the new fiscal year at this year's levels. This is expected to have grave ramifications for the programs of most federal agencies, which will grow worse as the standoff continues into what is expected to be early 2009.
THE GOOD NEWS:
The numbers in the two versions of the House and Senate budget resolutions are favorable for the budget category providing funding for most federal science, space and technology programs. The House's "blueprint" sets spending at the authorized levels in the America COMPETES Act for the National Science Foundation and the DOE Office of Science, and provides additional budget authority for NIST programs. House Science and Technology Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) hailed the additional $1.98 billion in proposed funding over this year, saying "I'm pleased to see this budget resolution make U.S. competitiveness and education a high priority." The Senate voted its approval of an amendment offered by Senators Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Pete Domenici (R-NM) to its budget resolution to keep NSF and the Office of Science generally on track with the President's request and the America COMPETES Act.