Casey DreierSep 17, 2012

Sequestration and Planetary Science

Sequestration. It's a word not mentioned much in political discourse this past year. Nevertheless, it's coming on January 2nd, 2013, and if nothing is done to prevent it, NASA's planetary science division stands to lose an additional $97 million to the already-proposed cut of $309 million for 2013.

Senate after voting for the Budget Control Act of 2011
Senate after voting for the Budget Control Act of 2011 The Senate after voting for the Budget Control Act of 2011 which imposed the condition of sequestration unless a congressional supercommittee could find $1.2 trillion in cuts over the next decade.Image: CNN

You may remember the political standoff on the U.S. debt ceiling last year. The ultimate comprise for increasing the U.S.'s debt limit was to pair it with $1.2 trillion in cuts over the next decade. The law created a "supercommittee" of legislators in both houses to create special legislation to achieve this reduction. To ensure this would happen, the law contained an incentive: an automatic across-the-board cut to all discretionary spending programs (programs not mandated by law) and Medicare set to occur on January 2nd unless the cost savings had been achieved. This automatic cut is known as the sequester.

The sequester was never supposed to take effect, but unless these cost savings are somehow achieved by a deeply-divided Congress sometime in the next four months, it will. In preparation for this, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released its initial report breaking down the cuts for each agency. NASA (like most agencies) gets hit hard, losing about 8.2% of its budget, or about $1.4 billion.

What makes the sequester so unpleasant, though, is that, by law it applies equally to "all programs, projects, and activities within a budget account" [1]. This means that government agencies are very limited in how they can reach their mandated savings. There can be some leeway in what is defined as a program, project, or activity, however, but it's difficult to suss out.

The recent OMB report specified cuts down the level of NASA's science division, which is oversees its planetary science mission. The science division faces an 8.2% cut, which we can assume will apply evenly to each program within it.

This means that Planetary Science at NASA faces a loss of $123 million relative to the 2012 budget. That's just a bit less than what a New Frontiers-class mission costs per year (like OSIRIS-REx).

But wait, it gets worse.

As many of you know, the Planetary Science division is already facing $309 million in cuts in the proposed 2013 budget. If these cuts go through, the sequester is applied on top of the other cuts, and we face a crippled planetary science division, having lost almost a third of its budget in one year, or about $406 million.

Again, many politicians and people in the administration, like NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, do not believe that sequestration will happen. But honestly, no one knows. No movement on this issue will occur until after the presidential election, at which point the lame-duck congress will have less than two months to figure this out. During which they will be facing the other major issue of dealing with the end of the Bush-era tax cuts.

We've been working hard to reverse the proposed cuts in the 2013 budget, and so far we'v had some success, with both the Senate and the House restoring some of the money. But the 2013 budget has not passed, and the sequestration happens regardless unless Congress stops it.

We at the Planetary Society are watching this all very closely and will keep you posted with what you can do as this progresses.

[1] Section 256(k)(2) of the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985

Relevant Documents:

OMB Report Pursuant to the Sequestration Transparency Act of 2012

NASA FY 2013 President's Budget Request Summary

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