What's Missing in Ryan's Budget Plan

Jeff tries to explain how government works to readers of Science.

Any scientist interested in what congressional Republican leaders think about basic research, space exploration, or science and math education need not read the heavily anticipated budget plan unveiled today by Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI), chair of the budget committee in the House of Representatives and fiscal standard bearer for his party. In contrast to the spending blueprint that the president submits every February to Congress, Ryan's "Path to Prosperity" isn't really a proposed budget for the 2013 fiscal year at all.

Ryan doesn't detail how he would allocate some $3 trillion-plus across every federal agency. The media have focused on how Ryan's plan would cap discretionary spending at $1.028 trillion, some $19 billion below the 2013 level enshrined in last summer's budget agreement that averted a government shutdown. But there are few details of how that number would be divvied up. Instead, the 99-page document is a statement of political philosophy.

For example, don't bother looking for how much House Republicans want to spend on basic and applied research—a category for which President Barack Obama has proposed $64 billion in 2013, a 5% boost over 2012. Ditto for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education, for which Obama has proposed to hold steady at $3.4 billion. Instead, the chapters in the plan bear such titles as "Providing for the Common Defense," "Repairing the Social Safety Net," and "Strengthening Health and Retirement Security." And tax reform looms large.

In fact, the only mention of research comes on page 30, as part of what Ryan calls "continued funding [of] essential government missions." That's one more time than STEM education appears, however. Universities as a whole get barely a wave, as Ryan explains that "federal intervention in higher education should increasingly be focused not solely on financial aid, but on policies that maximize innovation and ensure a robust menu of institutional options from which students and their families are able to choose."

Predictably, the Obama Administration is aghast at what Ryan is suggesting. "The House budget once again fails the test of balance, fairness, and shared responsibility," says White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer. "It would shower the wealthiest few Americans with an average tax cut of at least $150,000, while preserving taxpayer giveaways to oil companies and breaks for Wall Street hedge fund managers." Pfeiffer also repeats the president's mantra about the economic payoff from research and education. "What's worse is that all of these tax breaks would be paid for by undermining Medicare and the very things we need to grow our economy and the middle class - things like education, basic research, and new sources of energy."

Of course, Ryan doesn't see it that way. "We reject the broken politics of the past," he says about his plan. "The American people deserve real solutions and honest leadership. That's what we're delivering with our budget."

The House could vote on the plan as early as next week, assuming House Speaker John Boehner has rounded up the necessary 218 votes from his 243-member caucus to secure its passage. The Democratic leaders of the Senate have already said that they don't plan to pass a budget resolution because last summer's budget agreement serves that purpose. So the safest bet in Washington is for continued gridlock on the budget until after the November elections.

Posted in Funding Budget_2013