The Budget Request; or, Wait, Haven’t We Seen This Before?

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The production and release of the annual White House Budget Request has devolved more clearly than ever into one great copy-and-paste job. In this scenario, the White House proposes sizable cuts to non-defense programs across nearly all departments. Upon delivery of the budget to Congress, both Democrats and Republicans acknowledge receipt and then explore the rhetorical space bounded by the limits of no, never, not a chance, and hunh?

Lather, rinse, repeat

Some intriguing wrinkles were folded into this ritualized exchange to kick off work on fiscal year 2020 (FY20), but — our wild prediction here — nothing seems likely to alter the final outcome. Congress will pass — in some disorganized, last-minute fashion — appropriations bills that disregard the president’s request root and branch. Just before, or else some time into, a government shutdown, the White House and Congress will arrive at some resolution. And all parties will retreat to their offices, cubicles, and conference rooms to start it all over again for fiscal year 2021.

Two parts

At any rate, the FY20 budget request, kind of weirdly, came out in two parts: a 150-page blueprint on March 11 and a full-data version on March 18. The March 11 framework left out baseline figures used to compare proposed funding rates to current rates and understand how much they differ. The March 18 follow-up included more data about historical, projected, and program-specific funding, after most of the media attention had moved on to other stories. Not that such was the plan, or anything.

The gory details

Once budget wonks got their hands on the full set of data, the policy and funding contours of the White House request came into focus.

Credit: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

Credit: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

Quote from OMB Acting Director Russ Vought: “This Budget shows that we can return to fiscal sanity without halting our economic resurgence while continuing to invest in critical priorities. President Trump’s Budget for 2020 will balance in 15 years, end runaway spending, and secure prosperity for future generations.”

Or, as Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY3), Chair of the House Budget Committee, said: “President Trump’s budget once again lays out an irresponsible and cynical vision for our country, without any regard for its human cost. It lacks foresight and would leave our nation unable to meet our obligations to the American people, provide for our economic and national security, or responsibly plan for our future.”

Even Republicans did not rise to defense of the budget. Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX13) addressed spending gimmicks inserted to raise defense spending by saying, “the idea … is not one that pretty much anyone takes seriously.” More generally, he added, “The real negotiations will have to take place on Capitol Hill.”

A familiar pattern

Science and technology spending proposals followed a pattern similar to overall spending, with decreases proposed in exactly the same areas as had been proposed each of the prior two years.

Credit: Matt Hourihan ( @MattHourihan ),  AAAS

Credit: Matt Hourihan (@MattHourihan), AAAS

At the House Budget Committee hearing on the budget request, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA17) cited the cuts proposed for the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health and asked Vought, “Do you see why some people may think that you don’t believe in science and technology?”

To which Vought answered, “I don’t believe I understand why that perception would be there.” So there’s that.

Education, not so much

Another perception that might exist regards White House hostility to federal education efforts.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos stated, “This budget at its core is about education freedom — freedom for America’s students to pursue their life-long learning journeys in the ways and places that work best for them, freedom for teachers to develop their talents and pursue their passions and freedom from the top-down ‘Washington knows best’ approach that has proven ineffective and even harmful to students.”

Senator Patty Murray, top Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, responded, “This is not a serious budget proposal, and I am going to once again work with Republicans in Congress to ensure every student has access to a quality public education in their neighborhood.”

Next steps

The next stage of the budget cycle is for Congress to get to work exercising its “power of the purse” and setting actual appropriations. Here’s how Congress has done this job over the last two years in areas of science and technology.

Credit: Matt Hourihan ( @MattHourihan ),  AAAS

Credit: Matt Hourihan (@MattHourihan), AAAS

Same for STEM

Much the same has occurred with STEM education funding. As in past years, the White House budget request zeroes out programs for teacher professional development, afterschool programs, and the flexible Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants used for things like school safety and climate issues, STEM, computer science, arts education, and educational technology purchases, among other apparently superfluous areas. It also eliminates NASA’s Office of STEM Education.

Support in the budget goes to areas favored in the White House’s recently announced 5-Year STEM plan, such as advanced technological education, career and technical education, and teacher professional development, with a focus on STEM areas.

Way forward

The past that is almost certainly prologue to FY20 STEM education funding outcomes suggests the strong support in Congress for STEM that we recently highlighted will lead to the same slightly-to-notably higher levels of funding across existing STEM-related programs as occurred last year.

And, finally

Sound and fury is what it all means, putting forward campaign talking points and a marker for one side of the next shutdown drama, coming in the fall. As Mac Thornberry noted, the “real negotiations” on Capitol Hill will settle the numbers (and what to do about caps set in the Budget Control Act — cue ominous music). Politicking will settle the final legislative outcome. On that count, it’s anyone’s guess as to what will happen.

Please share any wild predictions you might have yourself, and if any interested friends or colleagues spend any time on budget hijinks, we make it easy down below to forward this item along.


Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at eiversen@start-engineering.com

You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEnginNow.

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