NASA has been relatively sheltered from the freeze on most discretionary spending the White House imposed in its FY2011 budget proposal: the agency got a $6-billion increase over five years in the budget proposal released in February. However, the agency might be asked to cut some future spending in a very targeted fashion, according to a memo released by the White House Tuesday.
In a memo to heads of executive departments and agencies, OMB director Peter Orszag and White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel wrote that “we must do more” to cut spending and “restore fiscal responsibility” to the country. In the memo, they ask that heads “identify the programs and subprograms that have the lowest impact on your agency’s mission and constitute at least five percent of your agency’s discretionary budget” and submit that information along with their FY2012 budget submissions to the White House in September, but as a separate exercise.
The memo makes clear that they’re not looking for agencies to simply make across-the-board cuts to achieve that five percent goal, but instead target specific low-priority programs. “To reach the five percent target, your agency should identify: (1) entire programs or subprograms; or (2) substantial cuts amounting to at least 50 percent of total spending within a program or subprogram,” the memo states. Selecting those programs, the memo notes, should be “based on their impact on your agency’s mission and relevant Presidential initiatives” and that “your agency should consider whether the program has an unclear or duplicative purpose, uncertain Federal role, completed mission, or lack of demonstrated effectiveness.”
The five-percent target is from what each agency received for FY2010 (excluding any supplemental funding); for NASA, which got approximately $18.7 billion in FY10, that means finding programs valued at $935 million or more. There’s no guarantee than any or all of those cuts would be included in the final FY12 budget proposal, but the request is raising eyebrows: as the Washington Post reported this morning, budget analysts said they couldn’t recall anything similar happening before, with agencies effectively being asked to volunteer their own programs for elimination.
In a separate budget guidance document for FY12 budget planning, the OMB directs agencies that “your overall request should not exceed a level of five percent below the discretionary total provided for your agency for FY 2012 in the FY 2011 Budget”. NASA projected a budget of $19.45 billion in FY12; the five-percent target means a cut of $972.5 million separate from the budget exercise described above. However, the memo adds that this is not necessary if “your agency has been given explicit direction to the contrary by OMB”; it’s not clear if NASA has received any such direction.