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    Sailing Over the "Fiscal Cliff" with American Science Locked in the Trunk

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    Michael Byrne

    Talk about a hangover. The good guys seem to win a perilous election and, kapow, the realization that nothing has actually fucking changed. Here we are once again at the edge of a nonsensical financial doomsday, the “fiscal cliff.” If you are not up on American political dysfunction, the fiscal cliff is a broad budgetary mechanism passed into law last year during the debt-ceiling mess as a threat to legislators tasked with coming up with a bipartisan debt-control compromise. Essentially, the idea was you guys fuck this up, and we get a whole bunch of draconian spending cuts and tax increases … automatically. Guess what happened?

    So, we’re faced with the fiscal cliff at the end of this year and the same exact balance of power that got us into the mess to begin with, with roughly the same rhetoric from the president and John “It’s pronounced ‘bay-ner’” Boehner. On one hand you have “We can do this by cutting loopholes!” (“Let’s kill Amtrak and food stamps”) vs. “Let’s raise taxes on the rich!” (“What is so hard about this?”). Good times. Odds are congress will pass some sort of extension, punting the issue once again down the field. (Translated from Americanese: shoving the problem into some closet for a while.) But it’s worth remembering what the fiscal cliff means for science in the US. I covered it several months back but that was election season and “fiscal cliff” wasn’t so much in fashion.

    Instead of actually settling anything, Congress and the president devised an elaborate way to put off the argument: the debt-ceiling would get raised, but a super-special Congressional committee would be convened that would have to find ways to do it, to cut about $1.5 trillion from the federal budget over the next 10 years. It failed miserably and embarrassingly.

    That failure means the cuts happen automatically, in a process known as the “sequester.” Rather than being cuts made with actual consideration for the things being cut, the sequester lops off an equal amount from every government agency. According to a Nature piece today, that would come out to be about 7.8 percent for 2013, depending somewhat on revenue. And that number is even somewhat optimistic. Nature continues, “Research advocates are particularly concerned that the sequester might be adjusted to prevent cuts to defence. If that happened, non-military programmes would be forced to bear more than twice the currently mooted cut. Such an extreme measure would threaten entire facilities and sideline thousands of research grants.”

    “A lot of programmes wouldn’t survive,” Mike Lubell, director of public affairs for the American Physical Society, told Nature. "They’d be vaporized.” And understand that 7.8 percent isn’t from individual programs, it’s from agencies. Which means that a federal agency could decide to totally nix one program so they don’t have to cut another — in other words, the agency decides increasing funding for program x is more important than the bare existence program y. (Only one agency likely won’t have its budget go down, the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST), and that’s only because its initial budget request included a very large increase.)

    The biggest losers will likely be the Centers for Disease Control, NASA’s science arm, the National Institutes of Health, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Both the CDC and NASA stand to lose over 10 percent in 2013, factoring in pre-existing planned budget cuts. And this could all go away if congress and the president come up with something better by the end of September, when the 2013 budget year begins. But if they couldn’t get it together enough to solve this last year, don’t expect anything real to happen in an election year.

    It’s a bit weird to even focus on one aspect of the fiscal cliff, at least when you look at the sheer vastness of the thing as a whole. There’s really no question it means a new recession. Your average American taxpayer could be spending thousands more in taxes, thanks to the return of the Alternative Minimum Tax, while the sequestration mentioned above means slashes to Medicare payments to doctors, education, and even FEMA.

    The Forbes explainer linked above says out load one of the truly amazing things about the fiscal cliff. It wasn’t written as policy, as something that would ever be put into law. It was designed as a threat. This is the state of American politics post-2010: legislators are writing threats into law to ensure that other laws get passed. That’s amazing.

    Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv.

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