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Budget Mess

The fiscal 2010 budget is late and the process is broken

by David J. Hanson
February 16, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 7

Credit: Peter Cutts Photography
For decades, presidents have submitted federal budgets in February and Congress has passed them by the end of September, but in recent years the approval process has gotten out of control.
Credit: Peter Cutts Photography
For decades, presidents have submitted federal budgets in February and Congress has passed them by the end of September, but in recent years the approval process has gotten out of control.

THE GOVERNMENT’S budget for fiscal 2010 is missing—and no one seems to care.

Since 1974, the law has required the President of the U.S. to submit a proposed budget for the next fiscal year to Congress on the first Monday of February. Normally, this is not a problem as the White House Office of Management & Budget and the federal departments and agencies can work out their spending plans well ahead of time.

But presidential-transition years have become big stumbling blocks to this process. Beginning with the first Clinton Administration in January 1993, presidents have taken to putting out a very short summary of their budget plan on the February deadline and then following up with detailed spending figures sometime in April. Former president George W. Bush also did this when he took office in 2001.

But the new Obama Administration is certainly dedicated to change. The Feb. 2 deadline for the 2010 budget came and went without a peep from the White House as to its status, when it might appear, or even that it is delayed. Even more surprising is that there was virtually no reaction to missing this deadline. There were no complaints from Republican leaders in Congress about the Administration’s failure to meet this requirement. There were no editorials in newspapers about President Barack Obama’s tardiness. There weren’t even any press releases from concerned pressure groups about why there is no budget. It’s as if no one cares.

Well, maybe there is good reason not to care. The government’s procedure for debating and passing an annual budget has become so unhinged over the past few years that the proposed spending plan submitted every February has become useless.

THIS YEAR is especially confusing. For fiscal 2009, Congress has passed only three of 12 appropriations bills. They are for the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs. The rest of the budget was bundled into a “continuing resolution” that maintains agency funding at the same levels as 2008. This resolution is in effect until March 6.

Congress is supposed to have the entire budget approved before the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year it covers. This allows the myriad government agencies and offices to make spending plans, set up new programs, and hire employees in an orderly way.

It’s easy to see how funding agencies, such as the National Science Foundation or National Institutes of Health, are unable to determine what increases they need in their budgets for fiscal 2010 when they don’t yet have a budget for 2009.

Adding another layer of complexity this year is the enormous stimulus package proposed by Obama and enhanced by Congress. This roughly $900 billion bill includes about $18 billion in the Senate version and more than $13 billion in the House version for many federal science programs in excess of their budgeted amounts. What the total funding in the final compromise bill will be is unknown as this is being written. This money is expected to be added predominantly to fiscal 2009 budgets, distorting this year’s budget and making the 2010 budget even harder to calculate.

To give the new Administration some credit, it has quietly said, to those who asked, that it will put out a brief budget summary sometime this month and a detailed budget later in the spring. There is only a remote chance that Congress will have passed the remaining nine appropriations bills by then, so trying to determine whether agency budgets are going up or down will be next to impossible.

Much of the responsibility for this chaotic state of budget affairs lies with Congress. In the olden days—the 1980s—Congress always met its end-of-the-year deadline for passing the individual appropriations bills. But lately, most of the budget is approved long after the end of the fiscal year, usually because of partisan stances stubbornly held by members of Congress. The result often has been a huge spending bill, an omnibus behemoth that incorporates so many government departments that its details are simply incomprehensible. And there have been several years, like last year, when the federal budget doesn’t get finished at all.

Like it or not, much of the country’s basic research depends on funding from the government. Long-term goals and national priorities shape funding levels for R&D and can even direct scientists into pursuing specific fields of research, such as health, energy, or nanotechnology. Without a regular, rational budget process, the nation is deprived of its chance to have a say in those goals and priorities. If no one can discern which agency is getting how much money and for what, the system becomes worse than just chaotic. It becomes an opportunity for deception and waste.

An early-February issue of C&EN each year is usually crammed with a detailed explanation of the proposed federal R&D budget for the next fiscal year. This year, however, such coverage will have to wait until the Obama Administration provides details about its R&D programs in the coming months. And then, maybe, Congress will do its job and pass the budget on time.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.



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