Issue Date: October 21, 2013
It’s Over, Until Next Time
Congress voted late on Oct. 16 to end the disastrous partial shutdown of the federal government; it also narrowly averted a U.S. default on its financial obligations by voting to raise the debt ceiling. It will take a while to account for the full effects of the shutdown. The U.S. economy continues to grow at a modest rate, according to a Federal Reserve report, but the shutdown and the debt-ceiling standoff have raised considerable business uncertainty. Economists estimate that the cost of the shutdown to the economy will run into the billions of dollars: $24 billion so far, according to Standard & Poor’s.
The effects on U.S. science may be incalculable (see page 9). What price do we put on lost opportunities to collect data? What about the loss of confidence in U.S. R&D funding by scientists who have options to work elsewhere in the world? Scientists are already frustrated by sequestration, the across-the-board budget-cutting measure that is to remain in place until 2021 unless the law is changed (C&EN, Sept. 2, 2013, page 35). Forced to close shop by the shutdown and facing continuing uncertainty in funding, scientists must feel increasingly beleaguered.
A food safety chemist at the Department of Health & Human Services describes the exasperation in “C&EN Readers Share Shutdown Woes” (http://cenm.ag/woes):
“We develop/evaluate/use chemical analysis techniques/instruments to measure chemicals in food/packaging for food safety. Shutdown dramatically increases government contract costs, hurts commonsense science-based regulatory work, delays harmonization work, makes past research obsolete, hollows out government professional staff. Federal budget cycle [is] already crazy, with less than 6 months to make all purchases for the year, and [we] never know (even to within 50%) what the budget will be for any given program. Partners in university/Industry/other agencies & taxpayers don’t know when we will be available and what we will be able to do for them. We already struggle to travel to important meetings (CODEX, ASTM, etc.) and meet with partners.
“How can they trust us when one day we have to hang a sign up that says, ‘Sorry, we don’t have any money and don’t know when we will. We’ll get back to you once we find the money.’ You can’t do science in that kind of setting. The taxpayers did not pay for this kind of hobbled non-performance. The U.S. is supposed to be the place you can just buy food and not have to do a Ph.D. thesis to figure out if it’s going to kill you. How can we help make sure that is the case if we can’t work and make plans? The House leadership needs to decide, sequester/debt ceiling/furlough or food safety. They can’t have both. I think most people would riot if they knew how much money this shutdown is wasting.”
We heave a collective sigh of relief that the government is back in business and the U.S. will not default on its financial obligations. We cheer for federal employees, like the food safety chemist, on whom we depend for myriad services. Let’s enjoy this respite while it lasts.
Because it’s only a matter of time before we may be replaying the disaster of the past two-and-a-half weeks. The measure that passed Congress on Oct. 16—and President Barack Obama signed shortly after midnight on Oct. 17—funds the federal government only until Jan. 15, 2014, and raises the debt limit only through Feb. 7, 2014. Unless Republicans and Democrats bridge the wide gap between them about how to reduce the federal budget deficit in time, we will have another showdown in three months.
I earnestly hope to be proven wrong, but I am pessimistic that our government has learned any lesson from the latest shutdown and debt-ceiling brinkmanship. Some members of Congress seem to really want the country to go off the cliff to achieve their vision of small government. If they prevail, it’ll be déjà vu all over again.
Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.
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