WASHINGTON — The collision of the $1 trillion in budget cuts known as sequestration and the breakdown of the normal budgeting process is creating headaches not just for Washington but also for a vast web of offices dependent on federal financing. Many have been left uncertain as to how much money — if any — they will have to spend in the year ahead.
“I don’t want to throw darts or rocks at anybody,” said Gov. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, at the National Governors Association convention last month in Milwaukee, venting his frustration over the budget uncertainty. “I just want to know what the hell the numbers are.”
The budget woes are afflicting, among others, state governments, Native American tribes, military contractors and cancer research laboratories. Budget experts said that the short-term concerns over next year’s dollar figures were already hampering long-term planning and making government officials hesitant to commit to big projects or to hire needed employees.
“You’re eating away little by little at the infrastructure and effectiveness of government,” said Philip Joyce, a professor at the University of Maryland.
In an interview, Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, called 2013 the “darkest ever” year for the agency, whose budget is at its lowest inflation-adjusted appropriations level in more than a decade. The agency has been awarding grants to an increasingly smaller sliver of applicants as well.
The stopgap measures that have kept the government running have further hobbled the agency, he added. “Continuing resolutions discourage you from trying something new and bold,” he said. “You’re supposed to tread water. And science is very badly served by that tread-water message.”
One researcher who said he had felt the impact of the budget wars is Steven Salzberg, the director of the Center for Computational Biology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and a lauded biomedical researcher. Salzberg said that he had received about 20 percent less in federal funding than his peers had recommended for his work on the biological underpinnings of cancer and other diseases.
“Less science is getting done,” he said. “That means cures won’t emerge. Five years from now, when your aunt gets cancer and you can’t do anything for her, people won’t stop and think, ‘Jesus, if we only hadn’t had the sequester!’”
Shorter grant cycles have forced scientists to rush to get results, he said. Increasing competition for funding has left him and his peers spending more and more time on paperwork, and less and less time on laboratory work. Worst of all, he said, promising young scientists are becoming discouraged and leaving the field.
“The current budget wars are a more extreme or egregious version of what has been going on for a number of years,” Salzberg said. “They’re wreaking havoc on people’s research plans.”
The breakdown of the congressional budgeting process this summer has compounded the problems. Officials said that they had received no word about budget figures from their congressional appropriators — because such numbers do not yet exist.
For public housing offices, the disarray means, at a minimum, a delay in maintenance, capital projects and hiring. It also could lead to a cutback in the number of vouchers issued to low-income families to help pay for their homes.
“It’s a recipe for frustration,” said Sunia Zaterman of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities. “The greater uncertainty is leaving programs wondering how many vouchers to issue,” she said. “And at the same time, they’re laying off staff because their administrative funding level is down.”
Behind the logjam lies a deep ideological rift about how big the government should be, which persists even as the federal deficit continues to shrink rapidly.
Some House Republicans have indicated they want to push for further spending cuts beyond sequestration, and they are gearing up for fights on President Barack Obama’s health law and the debt ceiling this month as well. Senate Democrats and the White House want to repeal sequestration and replace it with a package that would make longer-term changes in entitlement programs like Medicare and include some tax increases that would help avoid the most painful spending cuts.
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