Thus far in 2013, the federal budget picture has been quite grim. Since March 1, the United States government has begun to adapt to the harsh reality of across-the-board budget cuts to particular categories of federal spending. This series of cuts—now commonly referred to as the sequestration—were enacted as part of the Budget Control Act of 2011. The spending reductions represent roughly $85.4 billion during the current federal fiscal year, with similar cuts envisioned for fiscal years 2014 through 2021.
In order to implement these draconian cuts, federal agencies have initiated significant reductions to their operational costs and staffing expenses. For instance:
- Over one million federal workers are set to begin unpaid furloughs this month, resulting in pay cuts of anywhere from 20 to 30 percent.
- Medicare payments to hospitals, doctors, and other health care providers are being reduced by two percent across the board.
- By mid-June, the Federal Aviation Administration will begin the closing of 149 airport control towers at smaller, regional airports across the country. Furloughs of other staff could also result in slow-downs in service at the nation’s largest airports as well.
- The federally funded Head Start early education program is expected to lose about 70,000 of its roughly 1 million slots due to sequestration.
Even amid these and other desperate measures—and continuing efforts by some in Congress to craft a workable alternative approach—the regular federal budget process for the upcoming fiscal year has commenced. On April 10, the White House unveiled its budget proposal for FY 2014. According to President Barack Obama, within this over $3 trillion proposal, “domestic discretionary spending is approaching its lowest levels as a share of the economy since President Eisenhower was in office.”
In spite of this austerity, the budget does contain a variety of targeted investments in support for manufacturing job creation, clean energy, and enhancements to public education. Additionally, $50 billion is allocated for up-front infrastructure investments. President Obama has specifically noted that his budget is designed to seek a balance, rather than simply “making harsh and arbitrary cuts that jeopardize our military readiness, devastate priorities like education and energy, and cost jobs.” In many respects, the FY 2014 budget currently under consideration appears to have been crafted as a direct contrast to the mandates imposed by sequestration.
The library community can take pride that President Obama’s budget includes a slightly increased level of funding for programs supported by the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA). This program, initiated in 1996 as the successor to the earlier Library Services and Construction Act, has provided an important source of funds that has helped to expand services for learning and access to information and educational resources in a variety of formats, in all types of libraries across the United States. The budget includes just over $177 million in funding for LSTA grant programs, with fully $150 million designated for direct grants to state library coordinating agencies.
Additionally, nearly $187 million in funds are proposed to support literacy within the budget of the Department of Education. The “Effective Teaching and Learning: Literacy Program,” proposed as part of the Obama Administration’s plan for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, would provide competitive grants to state educational agencies, alone or in partnership with others, for comprehensive state and local efforts to improve literacy instruction, especially in high-need schools, for children and youth from preschool through grade 12. At this stage, it is not known to what extent this program could potentially support school libraries.
Initial reactions in Washington to the Obama budget for FY 2014 were predictable. Democratic lawmakers were quick to praise the overall concept. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland), the chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee noted, “The President’s request moves us in the right direction. I commend his proposed initiatives to increase funding for basic scientific research, to rebuild our nation’s infrastructure, and to provide quality preschool for every child.”
On the other side of the aisle, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) shared his view that this budget is “not a serious plan, for the most part just another left-wing wish list.” Over in the House of Representatives, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) agreed, stating, “I don’t think that the budget is a serious effort at addressing Washington’s spending problem.”
Given this degree of partisan rancor, the prospects for timely passage of any sort of budget appear dim at present. At this point, the best advice that I can offer to library supporters is to initiate a clearly focused effort to enlist your state’s senators and representatives to go “on the record” in favor of the library-related spending requests contained in the FY 2014 federal budget proposal. Early activism in this regard can certainly be useful in maintaining valuable funding sources like LSTA. Working together, library supporters can make a difference, even during these troubled times in Washington.