Sequester, continuing resolutions, government shutdowns, debt ceiling, and cuts. The federal budget can be very confusing, especially when it pertains to medical research and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Below, we tried to explain how we got to this point by answering the questions we hear from our advocates every day.
How did we get here?
To answer this question, we will have to go back to 2011, when the United States was dangerously close to crossing over something called the debt ceiling.
What is the debt ceiling?
The debt ceiling is a limit on the borrowing power of the United States. Once the Treasury has paid what it owes from the money that it has collected, it borrows to fill the gap. The debt ceiling limits how much the Treasury can borrow and if there are still debts owed after the limit is reached, the country could default. If that happens, the economic consequences would be severe. (Think about not paying your home mortgage - but much, much worse!)
In the past, Congress has routinely raised the debt ceiling – but partisan gridlock has made even the debt limit a highly contentious issue.
So, back to 2011.
During a debt limit crisis that year, Congress agreed to raise the debt ceiling – but also agreed that if they were unable to come up with a way to reduce deficits and debt, there would be automatic, across-the-board spending cuts affecting most government spending. Ultimately, Congress could not agree on a compromise and in March 2013, severe automatic budget cuts, knows as sequestration, took effect for most parts of the federal budget, including NIH.
As a result, $1.5 billion or about 5% was cut from the NIH budget. These cuts reduced the number of planned grants by 640, and have the potential to eliminate an estimated 20,500 jobs, and postpone important medical discoveries.
Over the past several months, the AHA and You’re the Cure advocates have urged the Congress to restore that 5% cut in emails, letters to the editors, in person meetings, and rallies. But gridlock continues – and we now face a second round of cuts in January.
So, why did the government shutdown this fall?
Lately, it has been very difficult for Congress to agree on an actual budget. As a result, Congress has funded the government using a continuing resolution (CR). A CR allows the government to continue operating with current funding levels until agreement on a new budget can be reached.
This spring, both the Senate and House passed separate budgets, but predictably, they could not agree on how to resolve their differences. The government was running out of money and even a last-minute CR was rejected.
As a result, the government shut down for 16 days this fall. At the same time, the Treasury was once again getting dangerously close to the debt ceiling deadline and a possible default. With little time to spare before a possible default, Congress passed a bill to both open the government by extending current funding levels using a CR until January 15th and increased the debt ceiling until February 7th.
Now, members of a Senate and House conference committee will try and resolve differences between their two budgets passed earlier in the year. They have until December 13th to accomplish this.
So, what does this mean for NIH research?
If Congress can reach an agreement that replaces the sequester and raises overall levels of domestic spending, that would be good news for the NIH. But it’s not clear whether or not that will happen. In order to roll back the sequester cuts, Democrats and Republicans must agree on what to replace those cuts with, and at this point, that seems like a tall order. However, they may be more inclined to agree if they hear from constituents like you about the consequences of more cuts in research funding. NIH took a big hit last year with sequestration, and medical research cannot afford to take another one this year. We must make sure our voice is being heard loud, clear and often.
Stay tuned for new opportunities to fight for medical research in the near future. Remember, in the fight against heart disease and stroke, You’re the Cure!