A sigh of relief – for the moment

Fermilab Director Pier Oddone

The agreement to raise the debt ceiling has removed a specter that hung not only over the laboratory, but over all our lives. It has been difficult over the last weeks to take our minds off the struggles in the capital over reducing the federal deficit. Many of the old timers in Washington have suggested that these weeks have been the most difficult and polarized ever. We studied many financial “what if” scenarios for the laboratory, including the implications of a government default and the immediate actions we would have to take. It was not pretty and it is a relief that such things will not come to pass.

It is a fact, however, that there will be pressures on the budgets for all government-funded work until the deficit is reined in. The Budget Control Act of 2011 that was passed by the House of Representatives yesterday and is expected to pass in the Senate today places a cap on discretionary spending for FY2012 that is $24 billion above the limit already passed by the House of Representatives in its budget resolution. The House has passed six appropriation bills and three more have been marked by their respective subcommittees. In particular the Energy and Water Appropriations Bill has passed the House and it gives us an idea about the high energy physics budget for next year. It is extremely tight, but manageable. It would not require us to make deeper cuts in programs and personnel next year. Of course this is not the end of the story, as the Senate has yet to act on any of the appropriation bills. There are further uncertainties associated with the additional cuts required by the Budget Control Act. These cuts will be determined by a committee of 12 legislators (the “Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction”) and implemented before the end of the year.

The Budget Control Act contains a mechanism to insure that the additional cuts will be made on time. Once the Joint Committee proposes the legislation, it can only be voted up or down by the House and Senate, without any modification. Failure to reach a conclusion by the Joint Committee, or failure of their proposed legislation to pass in the House or Senate, would trigger automatic cuts to be pro-rated by formula. Unfortunately, we have to live with these uncertainties for the next several months. Fortunately, we have a lot of exciting work to keep our minds focused on our mission and off this subject.