Budget Update: Really Wonky, But Some Good News at the End

The Congressional Budget Resolution — the first real step in the annual appropriations process — has not gotten off to the smoothest of starts. The budget resolution is Congress’ response to the President’s budget request and, if passed, would set the total level of discretionary spending the appropriators would have to hand out over the course of passing their annual appropriations bills. Beyond that top-level number, the rest of the resolution isn’t incredibly significant. The budget resolution is divided into a number of “budget functions” that describe general areas of federal discretionary spending. “Function 250,” for example, is the “General Science, Space and Technology” account, from which NASA, NSF, DOE Office of Science and DHS S&T would ostensibly receive their money. In truth, however, the budget functions described in the Congressional budget resolution only loosely correlate to the final agency appropriations levels.
[Here’s the wonky digression….] If the House and Senate agree on a budget resolution, that top-level discretionary number becomes binding. It’s what’s called the 302(a) allocation, and it would represent the total amount of discretionary funding the government has available to spend this year. From that number, the House and Senate leadership and the respective Appropriations committees have to decide how that money gets parceled out to the appropriations subcommittees, each responsible for a single appropriations bill this year. Confusingly, the subcommittee jurisdictions don’t line up neatly with the budget functions laid out in the resolution, however. Three different subcommittees, for example, are responsible for agencies that receive funding from the Function 250 account mentioned above: the Science, State, Justice, Commerce (or, more confusingly, just the Commerce, Science, Justice committee in the Senate) subcommittee; the Energy and Water subcommittee; and the Homeland Security subcommittee. Since the budget resolution doesn’t specify funding levels for particular agencies, the appropriators and leadership sort of, well, wing it when it comes to parceling out the 302(b)s. Ok, it’s not quite winging it, but they do only use the budget resolution to “advise” the process, not direct it explicitly.
So, why does this all matter then? And what’s going on with the budget resolution this year?
The budget resolution is a prime indicator of the political climate for various funding issues. It’s the first clear opportunity we get to assess the mood of the two parties — and maybe more importantly, the various factions within the parties — towards funding the programs we care most about. This year’s budget resolution so far tells us that funding for science has strong support in the Senate, strong support from the House Democrats, and not much obvious support from the House GOP leadership. This isn’t terribly surprising given recent events, but it’s also not terribly encouraging as we move forward with the appropriations process.
Here’s where we stand:
The Senate passed its version of the FY 07 budget resolution in mid-March. Included in the Senate resolution is enough funding for the President’s American Competitiveness Initiative, plus some additional spending — $16 billion over the President’s proposed discretionary cap of $873 billion, in part to make up for cuts in Health and Education proposed in the President’s budget.
On March 29, the House Budget Committee passed a more parsimonious version of the resolution, sticking to the President’s cap, but not guaranteeing budget space for the President’s ACI. In the House version, the account that would include funding for the ACI-targeted agencies (NSF, NIST and DOE Office of Science) along with funding for NASA — the “Function 250” account, for which the President requested $26.3 billion — would receive $300 million less than the President’s request. (In contrast, the Senate included $100 million more than the President’s request for Function 250 in their budget resolution.)
The House leadership was hoping to vote on their resolution two weeks ago, before the Congressional “Spring/Easter Break.” However, that process faltered when two factions of the GOP — the moderates and the appropriators — rebelled and threatened to vote against the measure. The moderates don’t believe the measure provides enough discretionary spending for their priorities (which, for some, include fully-funding the ACI), the appropriators are concerned about language that would force them to get approval from the budget committee before considering any “emergency supplemental” spending bills, which have proven to be attractive vehicles for pork. So the leadership pulled the resolution without allowing a vote and decided to take advantage of the two-week spring Congressional recess to try to make some deals. The leadership plans to continue working this week to strike a deal with enough GOP members to put the resolution to a vote again next week.
Failing to get a deal done could have serious consequences. In the House, it’s actually not too big a problem. In the absence of a deal, the House leadership can “deem” a budget with an $873 billion discretionary cap. It opens them up to charges of being a “do-nothing” Congress from the Democrats and isn’t a great showing by Majority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) in his first budget negotiation, but for all practical purposes, the House leadership would probably be fine with the $873 billion figure.
The Senate doesn’t have the ability to “deem” a final number, however, so failing to reach an agreement would mean that the Senate would be forced to use the FY 07 budget number contained in the FY 06 Budget Resolution passed last year — which would set the discretionary number at $866 billion, $7 billion below the President’s request and $23 billion below the number the Senate passed last month. Finding $23 billion to cut in the President’s budget won’t be easy, and unfortunately, one juicy target would be the increases proposed as part of the ACI.
So, the science community is hoping that a deal can be struck to get the House and Senate numbers a little closer together. The computing community is part of the effort to urge the House leadership to include funding for ACI in the budget resolution, citing the ACI’s importance to computing research and computing research’s significant contribution to current and future American competitiveness. The leadership and supporters of the computing research community have taken advantage of this opportunity to put the case to the House Leadership, at a time when they can take a relatively easy step to address it (all told, the increase for R&D in the ACI is less than $1 billion). Here’s the letter (pdf) that resulted (and was delivered on Friday):

April 21, 2006
The Honorable Dennis Hastert
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20515
Dear Speaker Hastert,
As leaders and supporters of the computing research community, we write to express our concern that the proposed House Budget Resolution does not assume full funding for President Bush’s American Competitiveness Initiative. We respectfully request that Congress embrace this initiative by fully funding the President’s request in the budget resolution.
Numerous high-profile reports have pointed out the significant challenges that America faces from fierce and growing global competition. The President’s plan recognizes the critical linkage between the federal investment in fundamental research and the rise in innovation that will be required to respond to these challenges. The President’s call for increasing investment in basic research in the physical sciences represents a historic opportunity to secure the Nation’s leadership in research in information technology and other physical sciences and help ensure America’s future competitiveness.
The computing research field is a very concrete example of how federal investments in fundamental research drive economic growth. The field has a long history of creating revolutionary technologies that have enabled entirely new industries and driven productivity growth so critical to U.S. leadership in the new economy. A 2002 National Academies report found that federal support for computing research helped create 19 multibillion-dollar industries and made America the global leader in information technology. Further, several noted economists, including Alan Greenspan have cited the key role that information technology continues to play in driving U.S. productivity. Flat or declining agency budgets supporting computing research have created a significant concern within our community that we will cede these gains and our leadership by putting future innovation at risk.
The President’s American Competitiveness Initiative provides more funding for the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and the core labs program at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Each agency plays an important role in funding computing research. While the House Budget Resolution does increase funding for sciences broadly, it is not clear that the increase will be enough to fund the President’s initiative. We specifically ask that the budget resolution allocate enough funding to ensure the President’s proposal can be met during the appropriations process.
Thank you for considering our request. We look forward to working with you as the Budget Resolution and appropriations for these agencies move through Congress.
The American Association for Artificial Intelligence (AAAI)
The Association for Computing Machinery, U.S. Public Policy Committee (USACM)
Cisco Systems, Inc.
The Coalition for Academic Scientific Computation (CASC)
The Computing Research Association (CRA)
The Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Heads Association (ECEDHA)
Intel Corporation
Microsoft Corporation
The Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM)

Thanks especially to Cisco, Intel and Microsoft who put some of their political capital on the line to sign on to this important message. Their presence is very good news for our efforts and lends considerable weight to this letter.
Also good news is the fact that the President continues to tour the country making the case for the ACI. Last week the President stumped on the issue at a high school in Maryland, at Tuskegee Institute, and at Cisco in Silicon Valley. Tom Abate of the San Francisco Chronicle has coverage of the President’s visit to Cisco. The visit spawned this very supportive editorial in the San Jose Mercury News. Here’s a snippet:

As the president himself pointed out at Tuskegee University on Wednesday, it was through federally funded research that “the Internet came to be.” Other fruits of government-funded research include search technologies that spawned companies like Google, microprocessors breakthroughs that turned Apple, Sun Microsystems and Silicon Graphics into powerhouses, and countless technological advances that delivered enormous benefits to the economy. Future research in new energy technologies, for example, could help reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil and turn the nation into a world leader in clean energy.
And without the investment, America’s eroding ability to compete globally is certain to deteriorate further. Nations such as China and India, Russia, Ireland and countless others are emerging as economic powers in part because they are willing to invest in themselves, in the education of their children and in the training of their workers.

The seeds of America’s prosperity over the past few decades were planted in the late 1950s, when the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union prodded President Eisenhower to call for massive investments in education, infrastructure and research. The time to secure our children’s prosperity is now.

The President’s continued efforts and the support of industry (pdf) are crucially important in getting ACI enacted and the funding levels called for in the initiative appropriated. As that last pdf points out, the amounts we’re talking about here are not large — indeed, in the context of the federal budget they are quite literally a rounding error — and yet the potential payoff is dramatic. Hopefully the leadership will figure that out as they decide on their allocations….

Budget Update: Really Wonky, But Some Good News at the End