Breaking down the nation’s current fiscal crisis

This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst Background Last week’s non-defense discretionary spending (NDD) summit emphasized the theme of a balanced approach towards addressing the nation’s growing national debt. Whether you value investments in scientific research, education or the environment, the current debate over our nation’s fiscal crisis deserves close attention as it will determine long-term investments in a broad spectrum of federal programs that impact everyday life for millions of Americans. Due to Congress’s political inability to tackle the federal debt in a meaningful fashion, in 2011, it passed the Budget Control Act (P.L. 112-25), a law that sets an automatic trigger across discretionary spending programs in January 2013 totaling $1.2 trillion unless Congress develops an alternative plan to reduce the federal debt by at least that amount. Broken down, the spending cuts total $54 billion per year (7.5 percent) to defense programs and $54 billion per year (8.4 percent) to non-defense programs through Fiscal Year 2021. As policymakers work address the nation’s growing federal deficit, it is helpful to take a step back to examine what is and what is not the driving force behind the national debt. Perspectives on what’s a stake with reference to the upcoming sequester can be found in a report the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), which gives a succinct summary: “Our unsustainable fiscal situation is driven by healthcare inflation, the retirement of the baby boomers, and an inefficient tax code that raises too little revenue. Yet the sequester does nothing to address these problems, instead cutting almost exclusively from defense and non-defense discretionary spending, which are already projected to decline substantially as a percentage of the economy over the coming decade.” Discretionary spending As emphasized during the NDD summit, further cuts that strictly focus on non-defense discretionary spending are economically unwise and ineffective at bringing any long-term deficit reduction. An Aerospace Industries Association report concludes that well over one million jobs would be lost between 2013-2014 if the non-defense discretionary spending cuts are implemented (in total, 2.14 million jobs would be lost, if the defense cuts are included). According to BPC, non-defense discretionary spending accounts for 13 percent of the budget while defense spending accounts for 14 percent of the budget. A report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) notes that discretionary spending as a whole is already projected to fall over the next ten years: “By FY 2022, according to the Congressional Budget Office’s baseline projections, discretionary spending will fall to 5.6 percent of GDP, its lowest level ever,” the CRS report states. Further, according to BPC, full implementation of the sequester will only delay by two...

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ESA Policy News: September 14

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. BUDGET: HOUSE PASSES SIX MONTH FUNDING BILL, AUTOMATIC CUTS STILL PENDING This week, Congress took up a six month continuing resolution (CR), an omnibus appropriations measure (H. J. Res. 117) that would fund government agencies through the end of March 2013. The funding is necessary as the current fiscal year 2012 ends on Sept. 30. The bill passed the House Sept. 13 by a vote of 329-91. Seventy Republicans and 21 Democrats opposed the measure. The agreement between House and Senate leaders of both parties uses funding based on the original Budget Control Act (P.L. 112-25) agreement, the ceiling level of $1.047 trillion. Among its provisions, the bill adds about $800 million in funding for the Department of Interior (DOI) and the US Forest Service for wildfire suppression. The bill also continues a provision to deny funding for a provision in a 2007 energy law that would enforce light bulb efficiency standards. The measure also extends the current pay freeze for federal workers. Sequestration threat still looms While passage of the measure will ensure that government programs can continue to be funded through the opening months of the new calendar year, whether or not these funding levels will be sustained remains in limbo due to another provision of the Budget Control Act  which would initiate a budget sequestration in January. The sequestration would mean an eight percent cut to all discretionary programs (defense and non-defense) unless Congress takes action after the election to either find an alternative $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction or pass legislation to postpone or nullify the proposed discretionary spending cuts. On Sept. 14, the White House released a detailed account of how sequestration will impact federal agencies, as mandated by the Sequestration Transparency Act, passed by Congress last month. Read the report here. A few weeks ago, the Ecological Society of America, the American Institute of Biological Sciences and the American Mathematical Society teamed up to craft an action alert to their respective members, encouraging them to make their voices heard to their congressional representatives.  To go to the AIBS Legislative Action page where you’ll find more information on the fiscal cliff and budget sequestration as well as a letter to Members of Congress, click here. FWS: WYOMING GREY WOLVES REMOVED FROM ENDANGERED SPECIES PROTECTIONS On Aug. 31, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced that gray wolves in Wyoming no longer require protection under the Endangered Species Act. According to FWS, there are 328 wolves in Wyoming, 230 of which live outside the...

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Health, ed, enviro, sci communities prep for fiscal cliff #NDDUnited

By Nadine Lymn, ESA director of public affairs Yesterday’s second town hall meeting of the Non Defense Discretionary (NDD) coalition, drew an audience of 400 and featured two representatives from the Obama Adminstration.  Jon Carson, who does public outreach for the White House and Robert Gordon, Acting Deputy Director of the White Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The two reviewed the Administration’s position on the upcoming fiscal cliff.  Many in Washington, DC refer to the pending expiration of the 2001 Bush tax cuts plus the planned federal budget cuts as the “fiscal cliff” and unless Congress takes action, it will occur on January 1, 2013. Carson’s overall message to the assembled group was to encourage them to continue to demonstrate the value of federal programs and their connection to local communities across the country. Gordon noted that the upcoming OMB transparency report related to the budget sequestration and scheduled to be released still this week, would be an enormous but not surprising document; it will not “change the fact that cuts will threaten national security and critical investments here at home.” Some in the large audience–which included represenatives from the public health, education, environmental and science communities, asked that the Obama Administration encourage federal agencies to supply more information about how they would be affected by the pending cuts. When asked if the President would veto a bill that would delay the sequester, Gordon declared that he would. While there are many scenarious, no one knows how Congress and the Administration will ultimately deal with the national debt crisis. All everyone seems to agree on is that it will not be dealt with until after the General Election. As anyone following the news is well aware, the two parties have been in gridlock and have starkly different visions of the best way to address the nation’s debt crisis.  The NDD Coalition continues to push for a “balanced” approach that would avoid further cuts to NDD programs, which have already taken large cuts; NDD funding is at historically low levels not seen since the 1950s. Yet even so, word on Capitol Hill is that Members of Congress and their staff continue to hear from the Defense community and from constituents encouraging them to continue to slash NDD programs.  They are still not hearing much from those of us in the NDD community. A few weeks ago, the Ecological Society of America, the American Institute of Biological Sciences and the American Mathematical Society teamed up to craft an action alert to our respective members, urging them to make their voices heard to their congressional representatives.  To date, only about 1300...

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ESA Policy News: August 30

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. DROUGHT: DRY CONDITIONS COME WITH NUMEROUS COSTS, HARDSHIP FOR COMMUNITIES According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, as of the week of Aug. 21, roughly 53 percent of the nation has experienced at least moderate drought conditions. This has been the case roughly since mid-July. Drought conditions stand to have multifaceted effects on ecosystems as well as the U.S economy, particularly agriculture. Private crop insurers could lose more than $5 billion if this year’s drought destroys more crops than the one in 1988, according to Standard & Poor’s. By 2030, climate change could cause $1.1 billion to $4.1 billion in losses for Corn Belt farmers, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The agency states it expects to spend $170 million to help livestock ranchers devastated by the drought. Along the Mississippi River, slowing currents from the drought have allowed salt water from the Gulf of Mexico to advance up the river, leading to the issuance of a state of emergency and drinking water advisory for communities around Chalmette, LA. Illinois-based Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co. will build a 1,700 foot-long sill at the bottom of the river to block the heavier salt water from seeping farther north. The project, spearheaded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, will cost $5.8 million. Dry conditions alter wildfire management practices Furthermore, the drought corresponds with an increase in forest fires. In lieu of this increased dryness and record heat, which allows fire to spread more easily and do more damage, the U.S. Forest Service has altered its wildfire containment practices. Consequently, the agency has temporary suspended a long standing “let it burn” policy, where it would save money by allowing small fires to burn out. The fires still require funds for monitoring. Fire suppression accounts for more than half the Forest Service’s budget. This year, the cost projections are surpassing the budgeted amount of $848 million to $1.4 billion. A recent study in the Ecological Society of America’s open access journal Ecosphere noted that 38 percent of the planet will likely see increased fire activity over the next 30 years. For additional information federal drought monitoring efforts, click here. To view the Ecosphere paper, click here. EPA: FEDERAL APPEALS COURT STRIKES DOWN AIR POLLUTION RULE On Aug. 21, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit struck down the Obama administration’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR) that forces cuts from plants in 28 states in the eastern half of the country, concluding that it exceeds the Environmental Protection...

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ESA Policy News: August 17

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. APPROPRIATIONS: CONGRESS AVOIDS FALL SHUTDOWN, SEQUESTRATION CUTS STILL LOOM On July 31, congressional leaders announced an agreement on federal appropriations funding that would avoid a government shutdown when current funding runs out at the end of Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 on Sept. 30. The deal has the benefit of punting a contentious debate over federal spending levels for FY 2013 until after the November elections. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) announced that Congress would take up a continuing resolution in September, reportedly free of riders, to fund the government through the end of March. Overall, the agreement would fund the government at $1.047 trillion for the six months beginning after Sept. 30. Politically, the move would give whichever party is in control of Congress and the White House next year the ability to set funding levels for the remainder of FY 2013. Given the closeness of the presidential election, both parties feel this works in their favor. The deal also takes an issue off the table for what could be a potentially busy and contentious lame duck session. In addition to needing to address a swath of tax cuts set to expire at year’s end, Congress has still not yet reached agreement on how to handle across-the-board sequestration cuts instituted under the Budget Control Act. If Congress does not act before January, discretionary spending programs will receive an eight percent cut in funding totaling $109 billion. SENATE: COMMITTEE HEARING REVIVES CLIMATE CHANGE DEBATE On August 1, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee convened for a hearing on climate change science. The hearing marked the first time the committee had dedicated a hearing specifically focused on the issue since 2009. In her opening statement, Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) referenced the National Academy of Sciences as well as reports from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration and the National Aeronautic Space Administration that state that humans are impacting climate change and that these changes are already having detrimental impacts on the environment including extreme weather conditions, droughts and melting glaciers. In her statement, Chairwoman Boxer also referenced a New York Times article by former climate-skeptic Professor Richard Muller who stated: “Last year, following an intensive research effort involving a dozen scientists, I concluded that global warming was real and that the prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct. I’m now going a step further: Humans are almost entirely the cause.” In the article’s opening sentence, Muller proclaims “Call me a converted skeptic.”...

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ESA Policy News: July 27

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. SENATE: COMMITTEE REVIEWS CLIMATE CHANGE IMPACTS ON NATIVE AMERICANS On July 19, the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs held an oversight hearing on the impact climate change is having on Native Americans and tribal lands as well as what resources are available to adapt to changes in the environment. Indian Affairs Committee Chairman Daniel Akaka (D-HI) spoke of the importance of “Malama Aina,” which is Hawaiian for “caring for the land.” Chairman Akaka said that Native Americans hold the oldest record for being environmental stewards of the nation as it has been a foundation of their culture and world view “over thousands of years” and “hundreds of generations.”In his opening statement, he noted that “while environmental changes are widespread, studies indicate that native communities are disproportionately impacted because they depend on nature for traditional foods, sacred sites and to practice ceremonies that pass on cultural values to future generations.” Most of the witness testimony focused on the impacts climate change is having on their specific communities. Chief Mike Williams of the Yupiit Nation noted that 86 percent of indigenous Alaskan villages are threatened by flooding and erosion due to warming temperatures. Malia Akutagawa, Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Hawaii – Manoa said that climate change has reduced the number of good fishing days for Native Hawaiians, led to a 15 percent decline in rainfall, drying of forests, crop loss, beach erosion from sea level rise, increased destruction from wildfires, and increased surface air temperature. She also noted that climate change has affected plant flowering and animal migration cycles. Akutagawa called for federal assistance for increasing Hawaiian food security, family farms and coastal zone management programs. There was a general consensus from the witnesses representing indigenous communities that the federal government needs to increase or improve consultation with tribal leaders. View the full hearing here. HOUSE: COMMITTEE REVIEWS FEDERAL DROUGHT MONITORING EFFORTS On July 25, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee held a hearing to review the status of federal drought forecasting efforts. The hearing comes as the existing authorization for the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) is due to expire this year. In his opening statement, Chairman Hall (R-TX) sought to keep the focus on drought mitigation efforts and steer clear of climate change discussions. “Debating the causes of drought is not in front of us today,” he said. “The real question is:  What can be done to provide better and timelier information to help enable federal, state...

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Time to Restore Balance

By Terence Houston, science policy analyst and Nadine Lymn, director of public affairs Yesterday afternoon, several hundred individuals from organizations representing education, science, and other communities that make up the non-defense discretionary (NDD) part of the federal budget held a rally on Capitol Hill.  Their objective: to raise awareness that unless Congress takes action, across-the-board federal spending cuts are slated to go into effect on January 2, 2013 as mandated by the Budget Control Act (P.L. 112-25). Speakers called for both political parties to come together and focus on a consensus bipartisan solution towards bringing down the national debt. Senator Tom Harkin (photo on right), who chairs the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, asserted that it is “time to restore balance to the conversation.” The Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) projects that implementation of these cuts, also referred to as sequestration, could lead to the loss of over one million jobs in the United States between 2013 and 2014. In its report entitled “Indefensible: The Sequester’s Mechanics and Adverse Effects on National and Economic Security,” BPC notes that even if implemented, the sequester will ultimately prove ineffective in the long run, delaying by only two years the date when publicly- held United States debt surpasses 100 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. “Our unsustainable fiscal situation is driven by health care inflation, the retirement of the baby boomers, and an inefficient tax code that raises too little revenue,” the report notes. “Yet the sequester does nothing to address these problems, instead cutting almost exclusively from defense and non-defense discretionary spending, which are already projected to decline substantially as a percentage of the economy over the coming decade.” Consequently, instead of functioning as a meaningful debt reduction, the sequestration will take a machete to vital discretionary programs including cuts to scientific research ($1.1 billion), special education ($1.1 billion), air transportation security and traffic control ($1.6 billion), disaster relief ($0.7 billion) and disease control ($0.5 billion) with negligible long-term benefits and very significant immediate consequences for Americans. The BPC report reinforces the reality that meaningful deficit reduction must include a focus on revenue reforms and mandatory spending programs as initially suggested by the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, commonly known as the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction effort. Additional speakers at the rally included House Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee Ranking Member Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), House Education and Workforce Committee Chairman George Miller (D-CA), City of Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, Knott Mechanical President  Martin G. Knott Jr., and Rita Ngabo, a social worker and single mother. The rally was...

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ESA Policy News: July 13

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here. WILDFIRES: FEDERAL MANAGEMENT EFFORTS CONTINUE A number of federal agencies, including the US Forest Service (FS), the Department of Interior (DOI), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Defense, are continuing to support community recovery efforts from wildfires in Colorado and across the western US. As of this week, there are 40 large wildfires reported in the states of Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, California, Arizona, Oregon, Washington, Missouri, Alabama, Tennessee, Virginia, Florida, Texas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Alaska, according to DOI. Federal officials report that wildfires nationwide have burned over three million acres, slightly above the 10-year average for this time of year. President Obama formally declared Colorado a federal disaster area on June 29, upon a request from Gov. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) and the state’s entire congressional delegation. The designation will offer federal money for assistance by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, including temporary housing, debris removal and repairs to public facilities. The president toured the state in late June and DOI Secretary Ken Salazar visited Colorado Springs in July to survey damage and meet with first responders and other local officials. The FS has also opened a public comment opportunity to seek input on its broader forest conservation efforts. The comment period ends Aug. 13. For more information, click here. To view the National Interagency Fire Center’s recently released National Wildland Significant Fire Potential Outlook for July – October 2012, click here.  BUDGET: ESA JOINS EFFORT TO PREVENT NONDEFENSE DISCRETIONARY CUTS On July 12, the Ecological Society of America joined nearly 3,000 national, state and local organizations in signing a letter to Members of Congress requesting that they take a balanced approach to deficit reduction that does not include further cuts to nondefense discretionary (NDD) spending. The organizations are representative of a wide breath of fields that benefit from federal NDD programs including science, education, health and civil rights. The letter comes ahead of a potential across-the-board cuts to discretionary spending in Jan. 2013 that the Budget Control Act (P.L. 112-25) stipulates. Under the current law, the $1.2 trillion in cuts would come 50 percent from defense spending and 50 percent from non-defense discretionary spending. The letter notes the important role NDD programs play and urges Congress to work to reduce the deficit in a manner that prevents further significant cuts to these programs. “In total, if Congress and the President fail to act, between fiscal 2010 and 2021 NDD programs will have been cut by 20 percent overall. Such indiscriminate cuts...

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