On 1 March 2013, federal budget cuts that — according to the White House and members of Congress — were not meant to happen, began. Sequestration — $85 billion in across-the-board budget cuts to nearly all federal agencies — was meant as a threat to force congressional action to reduce the federal budget deficit. For a year and half, lawmakers have bemoaned how terrible the impacts of sequestration would be. Yet, as the deadline approached for action, little effort was made to further delay or avert the spending reductions, which some have compared to using a meat cleaver instead of a scalpel to cut spending.
Non-defense programs, including agencies that support science, will be cut by about 9 percent over the next seven months. Defense funding will be cut by 13 percent in the remainder of fiscal year 2013. An additional $700 billion in sequestration cuts will occur over the next decade unless current law is changed.
The White House Office of Management and Budget has estimated the impacts of sequestration to federal programs.
- The National Science Foundation will cut $290 million from its research budget, resulting in roughly 1,000 fewer research grants this year. Education programs will lose $47 million.
- Within the Department of Agriculture, the Agricultural Research Service, will lose $55 million and extramural research will be cut by $36 million this year.
- Funding for research at the United States Geological Survey will decline by $54 million.
- The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will lose $165 million from its operations, research, and facilities account.
- The budget for the Department of Energy Office of Science will be cut by $245 million.
- Science and technology at the Environmental Protection Agency will decrease by $40 million.
- The budget for the National Institutes of Health will decline by $1.6 billion.
- Research and development programs at the Department of Defense will be cut by $1.6 billion.
On 28 February, the Senate voted on two competing proposals to avert sequestration this fiscal year. Both plans failed to garner the necessary number of votes. The proposal backed by Senate Democrats sought to avert sequestration for the remainder of the year through higher taxes on the wealthy, new tax revenue from oil extraction from tar sands, and spending reductions in agriculture subsidies and defense. Senate Republicans backed a plan that would have allowed President Obama more flexibility in how to apply the cuts instead of the current requirement to make cuts across-the-board.
Lawmakers have now shifted their focus to dealing with funding the federal government for the remainder of fiscal year 2013, which ends on 30 September 2013. The current funding law expires on 27 March, after which a government shutdown would occur if no new agreement were enacted.
The House of Representatives passed a bill to fund nearly all federal agencies at sequester-reduced levels for the rest of the fiscal year. Although non-defense programs would not be granted leeway in regards to the automatic cuts, the Department of Defense would be given some flexibility in how the cuts are allocated. HR 933 passed 267 to 151, with 53 Democrats in support and 14 Republicans against.
The Senate is considering a measure this week that would fund most of the government at current reduced levels until October. A handful of agencies, including the National Science Foundation, would receive an increase over fiscal year 2012 levels. Once sequestration is accounted for, however, these agencies would still be subject to a budget reduction.