Whew! Just hours before the US would have been forced to default on debt, the stars aligned in Washington and the House of Representative passed, and President Obama signed a debt ceiling deal developed by the democratic and republican leaders in the Senate that ended 16 days of government shutdown and extensive furloughs of Federal employees. While I do not believe that it really had an impact on the ability of the Senate leadership to strike an agreement, I found it interesting that the salaries of Senate staff would have ended tomorrow, the 18th of October. In my view, the primary factor was that the majority of congressional members wanted to prevent the economic catastrophe and the embarrassment that would have resulted from a default.
Is the problem solved? Is there no longer a risk of another government shutdown? In a few words, things are okay “for now”. Under the agreement, the government will be open until 15 January 2014 and the Secretary of the Treasury will have the authority until 7 February to use extraordinary measures to prevent a default on US debt. The “continuing resolution” (CR) continues government funding at the fiscal year (FY) 2013 levels after the sequestration was implemented (i.e., generally 5 percent less than the FY 2012 program levels). Between now and then, Congress and the President must approve another CR or appropriations legislation to prevent the government from shutting down again.
It’s the 7th of October and at midnight the US government will enter its 8th day of shutdown. While many thought that the shutdown would be short-lived, this has not been the case. Indeed, it now appears as though the shutdown will last at least until the 17th of October – the date by which the US debt limit must be increased to avoid default on government loans. If you are curious as to how the government is (or is not really) operating during the shutdown, you can find copies of all agency plans here.
More importantly, APS has many members who serve on the staff of governmental agencies and many other members whose research or economic viability depends on access to Federal funding or the variety of regulatory activities that enable research and commercial activities related to plants and associated microbes, including plant pathogens. Who is minding these stores during the shutdown?
According to the contingency plans, most of the agencies have a handful (2-5) of employees at headquarters on call for emergency activities and most governmental websites have been shuttered. Here are a few more specific examples of the impact of the shutdown on employees at a few agencies.
· Out of approximately 10,190 staff within the research division of USDA (i.e., ARS, ERS, NASS, & NIFA), only 408 are working with 402 of these at ARS maintaining essential research facilities. This means that 96% of employees at these 4 agencies have been furloughed.
· APHIS receives some revenue from trust funds and user fees so it is not completely dependent on annual appropriation bills. For agricultural emergencies involving invasive pests and diseases, Commodity Credit Corporation mandatory funding is available. In addition, mandatory farm bill funding supports some pests and disease activities. In all, these non-appropriated funds will keep 3,037 APHIS employees working.
· The US Forest Service has furloughed almost 60% of its staff as you may have seen firsthand if you tried to visit a national park this past weekend.
· The National Science Foundation furloughed 1,970 employees and has kept 30 staff (slightly above 1%) to protect life and property.
It is hard to imagine what the financial toll will be on many of the governmental workers who will go without pay for at least one full pay period. Even if Congress enacts legislation to provide back-pay, no doubt many employees will have trouble making ends meet this month and they deserve our support.
What can you do? Contact your members of congress and tell them to pass, at least, a clean continuing appropriations resolution. If you are a governmental employee affected by the shutdown, remember that you can contact your members of congress as well provided you use your personal email and contact details.
This week, a multitude of Congressional hearings are being held on the President’s FY 2014 budget request for the Department of Agriculture. USDA Secretary Vilsack appeared before the House agricultural appropriations subcommittee on Tuesday to defend the President’s request, Undersecretary for Research, Education, and Economics (REE), Cathie Woteki, and the administrators within the REE mission area testified yesterday, and today, USDA Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs, Ed Avalos, and the administrators within this mission area (including the Acting Administrator for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) is appearing before the subcommittee.
While the REE mission area receives less than 2% of the overall USDA budget, research was a major topic of discussion during the Vilsack hearing. Many scientific societies who place absolute priority on increasing funding for the USDA’s flagship competitive grants program, AFRI, must have been disappointed that the focus of the discussions about research were on the importance of USDA’s intramural programs and facilities funded through the ARS. The hearing illustrates the reality of the constraints under which we must operate if we are to increase funding for agricultural research broadly. As former Speaker of the House of Representatives Tip O’Neil frequently said, “All politics is local”. This came through loud and clear at the Vilsack hearing. The subcommittee members were concerned about cuts in funding for research in their districts and the fact that their research facilities were not on the priority list for infrastructure improvement funding.
Because of the need for members of congress to focus on the impacts that legislation and appropriations have on their own districts, the various budget proposals over the past 20+ years to increase competitively awarded funding at USDA by taking funds from ARS or formula funds that support land grant institutions and extension, have most been dead on arrival in Congress. This is why the APS Public Policy Board has consistently advocated for net increases in spending for the entire REE mission area and has opposed efforts that would rob Peter (e.g., ARS) to pay Paul (e.g., AFRI).
We have been criticized occasionally for taking this position but it is starting to pay off. This year, the President’s budget request includes a “net” overall increase in funding for agricultural research. Included in the request is a significant increase in competitively awarded funding but it isn’t taken out of the ARS budget. While there are certainly winners and losers in the President’s budget request, the overall numbers should be our focus at this time. If we can hold onto the baseline and increase funding from there, overall research, extension, and education funding will rise (i.e., the whole boat will rise). The Administration deserves a big “thank-you” for requesting a net increase in funding for science at USDA.