Often in Washington when no one is happy with a particular piece of legislation, it usually means that all sides had to compromise. Such is certainly the case with regard to the debt limit agreement approved by Congress and signed by the President this week. The legislation is not in and of itself a panacea for the economic troubles affecting the US but it will move towards a more balanced Federal budget by trimming $2.4 trillion from the budget over the next 10 years.
How will this be accomplished? First, statutory caps on discretionary spending were enacted for fiscal years 2012 through 2021. During the first two years, non-security related accounts (e.g., research, education, food safety, etc.) could not be “raided” to put money into defense and homeland security accounts. If the caps have not been met by the beginning of the fiscal year, sequestration (across the board cuts) will occur to virtually all discretionary programs. Second, a 12-member joint committee, to be created within the next few weeks, will be required to submit to Congress by 23 November 2011 specific spending reductions (or revenue increases) that will result in reducing the budget by $1.5 trillion. This budget reductions package must be voted on without amendment by 23 December. If this package or a bill that achieves at least $1.2 trillion in savings is not enacted, an across the board sequestration will be imposed on virtually all discretionary and mandatory programs.
What does this mean for agriculture and agricultural research? On the one hand, agricultural programs were not “targeted” for reductions of up to $30 billion in FY 2012 as had been proposed in an earlier budget proposal. On the other hand, to meet the FY 2012 statutory cap for discretionary funding, $917 billion (yes, billion with a “b”) in discretionary program cuts , including discretionary USDA and other important research, extension, and education programs, must be enacted by 1 October, the beginning of the 2012 fiscal year. At this time, we do not know how much of the burden for achieving this goal will be assigned to the agricultural appropriations subcommittee yet but we can expect it to be significant.
As we have seen time and time again, agricultural research is often an easy target for spending cuts. Why? Because scientists are often reluctant to become involved in politics and industry (growers and companies) is often focused on saving funds for programs that provide direct, immediate income or support for commercial activities. Unless scientists become involved and let members of Congress and the President know that important agricultural research is critical to the long-term economic vitality of the agricultural industry and the nation, more than likely we will see agricultural research take a disproportionate funding hit this year and for the next 10 years.
If you want to help change the paradigm for agricultural research, come by the PPB booth at the annual meeting and “Get Engaged”! If you are not coming to the meeting, click on the links to the right and contact your members of congress immediately!