Will Federally Funded Basic Research Be Victimized By Republican Budget Unrest?

The long-expected clash between Republican campaign rhetoric and the political reality of Republican control begins in the House this week. And what happens to R&D funding in the budget process is still unclear, but because of its size and future benefits as distinguished from immediate impact, its current $130+billion will not be unnoticed by a revenue-starved “controlled” Congress.

Beyond this week’s start of House committee consideration of ACA, including its repeal of revenue producers. And the administration has promised “details” this week on its $54 bn. increase in discretionary defense spending. This implies an equivalent decrease in non-military civilian discretionary spending. Discretionary spending is about a third of our entire federal budget. The remaining two thirds are mandatory paying for debt interest, and the Social Security/ Medicare entitlements Trump has vowed to leave untouched. Like the “Wall” new expenses, must be offset by future budget savings, either from future reductions in mandatory entitlements or from discretionary expenditures like the Depts. of State, EPA, and AID. Repealing small fry funding for the Arts, Head Start Americorps, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting contribute little to the savings needed to offset Trump’s announced spending increases and tax reductions. Other spending offset sources like more revenue or increased debt have their own problems. So, to put it bluntly, R&D’s annual $130bn. appropriation which includes future basic science funding at NIH, NSA, and DOE is a very tempting offsets target. Will R&D funding it be trimmed… and if so how much? Two Trump budgets (for 2016 and 2017) must clear the House this Spring. And while the coming budget battle may be too complex to knowledgeably monitor both, for those of us who care about federally funded basic research, it makes sense to pay attention, stay alert and be ready to act if R&D funding goes on the chopping block. Here’s the problem. R&D funding invests in the future. The budget quagmire is now. If a deadlock among Republicans emerges Republicans collectively must resolve it because there is no one else to blame. They have postponed defining their actual positions for years. Will they now postpone implementation of long term investment expenditures whose beneficial effect is not immediate?

Several influential members of both parties have already declared that the Trump budget is “dead on arrival”. To implement the Trump defense spending issue the Republican majority in both chambers, must contend with amending the Budget Control Act (BCA) which will require at least some Democratic support in the Senate. There are military non-military ratio issues required by the BCA. According to Science reporter David Malakoff, who follows these issues closely and has summarized them in a short piece below:
“Some Republicans are criticizing the defense increase as too small, and some Democrats have vowed to fight spending cuts and block any change to the 2011 law that does not increase nondefense spending. Changing the BCA could require 60 votes in the Senate, meaning eight of the body’s Democrats or Independents would have to join with the Senate’s 52 Republicans.”.

But a fundamental problem in the House Republican conference mostly covered-up to date is about to take center stage. No one expected Trump to be elected, not even Trump. House Republicans ran against Hillary with conservative slogans promising to cut government’s size and spending in the coming binary battle they assumed. Their surprise victory however has transferred governing responsibility to many Republicans who will be up for re-election in 2018. Republican ranks however now include traditional Republicans, Freedom Caucus members and Trump supporters whose approaches to governing significantly differ. House leadership is in charge but not in control. Trump is pulling many in Republican ranks one way, and the Freedom Caucus is pulling them in the opposite way. Speaker Ryan and his band of traditional markets oriented Republicans are caught in-between. Ryan cannot simultaneously accept Trump’s spending plan and the budget-cutting objectives of the Freedom Caucus who came to Congress to “just say no”. This is the week the President promised to finally reveal his specific budget plans including detailed revelations on Tax Reform.

Republicans who campaigned on the traditional conservative platform of balancing the budget while they “fix” the future of our entitlements won because they were unified in their anti-Clinton support, which was led by Trump. Many owe them their jobs. Hillary is gone but Trump is not gone. Many Republicans are afraid to disagree with him even though they ran on a different issues platform. Trump is deeply committed to not reducing social security and Medicare entitlements. By siding with Trump Republicans have stripped themselves of their usual budgetary balancing rhetoric promising future entitlement “fixes”. Ryan and his more “traditional” Republicans are trying to cling to both sides to do so they must increase revenue an increase that will have two affect the middle class if it is to cover their spending plans. What they are considering is a Border Tax. Trump’s position on that is unclear. Trump still supports “deconstructing the administrative state” (as Bannon put it), cutting discretionary programs like EDA and AID, but not cutting Social Security and Medicare his constituents favor. He is therefore forced either to favor major tax or addition to the deficit or following his earlier ACA behavior to turn Tax Reform over to Congress. And since Ryan is unlikely be rescued by the House Democrats he must decide now who he wants to fight, the Tea Party or Trump. For as long as he can Ryan likely will postpone decisive action, but he eventually will have to act and hope for rescue by the Senate.

For now, Ryan will focus on the House reelections in 2018 a short time away. Trump’s re-election planning aims at 2020 and are based on populist ideas rather than traditional Republican or social conservative Tea Party issues. This means that the Republicans “Hillary hidden “cracks in their election directed unity are about to become crevasses. Ryan cannot satisfy Trump/Bannon, his more traditional free market-Republicans and Tea Party activists who came to DC to “just say no” with secret plans and future savings promises. It is this Ryan dilemma that worries us. R&D funding is an investment in the future. R&D involves present appropriations to realize future development. As the cracks in House Republican unity widen, R&D funding may fall through. We must all must stay alert and be ready to act on short notice. Diminution of investment funding on the on-ramp side of the commercialization “bridge” can lead to a lessening of federally funded R&D. But the Ryan’s Republican Party budget dilemma can lead to its on-ramp elimination! Please stay tuned, and be ready to act.

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