Published by the American Geological Institute
News and Trends in the Geosciences
April 2000

Political Scene

Reflections on the President's Budget Request

by David Applegate

Some people will tell you that presidential budget requests aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, and it is true that they’re printed on a lot of paper. This view seems particularly justified when the President is from one party and Congress is controlled by another, as has been the case for the past five years. It is also safe to say that the impact of a presidential election year is not terribly conducive to fiscal harmony between the executive and legislative branches of government. As confirmation of this view, members of Congress will shortly consider the President’s request and reject it by an overwhelming majority before taking up their own version of the budget.

But the lack of veto-proof majorities in either house of Congress ensures that, come October, we will have witnessed a budgetary exercise in iterative convergence, whereby the initial proposals from both the President and Congress are inexorably eroded by concessions until an acceptable compromise can be reached.

When a particular sector does especially well in the President’s request — as science does this year, up 6 percent in a budget up 1.5 percent overall — proponents can hope for one of two positive outcomes. The first is that the sector is of such importance to the President that he will be willing to go to the mat, i.e. threaten to veto appropriations bills, to bolster his request for a substantial piece thereof. Last year, the President’s Lands Legacy initiative was a case in point: the President requested nearly $1 billion, Congress provided less than $100 million, and they eventually met in the middle.

A favorable outcome for a requested increase is also possible when a program or agency has strong bipartisan support in Congress and is not overly associated with President Clinton or Vice President Gore. This outcome is likely to be the case for a major segment of the President’s requested increase in science: adding $1 billion to the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Last year, the President low-balled his NIH request, relying on NIH supporters in Congress to provide the agency with a healthy increase despite the low request.
In between these two favorable outcomes lies the valley of death — programs that are closely associated with the administration but that either lack strong presidential support or bipartisan appeal. The U.S. Geological Survey’s disaster information network initiative was such a victim in last year’s budget — it was not funded at all.

Keep all these scenarios in mind as you read through the following whirlwind tour of the President’s request for geoscience-related agencies.

Click here for
the Fiscal Year
2001 Budget Requests Table

The Good News

The President has requested a 17.5 percent increase for the National Science Foundation (NSF), the largest dollar increase in the agency’s history. Within that request, the Geosciences Directorate is up 19.5 percent, and the directorate’s Earth Sciences Division is up 16.6 percent. For the first time ever, a solid earth-science project has been included in NSF’s Major Research Equipment request — $17.4 million to launch the first two phases of EarthScope: the USArray seismic network and the San Andreas Fault Observatory at Depth drilling project (Geotimes, March 2000). These funds are separate from increases going to the Geosciences Directorate.

Although USGS increases do not match those for NSF, they are still significant. The agency overall would receive a 10 percent boost. As was the case for NSF, this is the largest requested increase in USGS history. The Geologic Division would receive a 6.4 percent increase, including new funding for upgrading seismic networks.

After years of proposed cuts for geologic mapping, the President’s request includes $7.5 million in grants to state geological surveys to expand digital geologic map capabilities and archives. The increase is part of a broader Community/Federal Information Partnerships (C/FIP) initiative to improve the flow of geospatial information to assist decision making at the state and local levels.

The Bad News

Unless a concerted effort is made to convince Congress otherwise, the USGS increases related to C/FIP will face a rocky road because the project is associated with Vice President Gore. Moreover, the overall increase for the agency masks several troubling decreases, most notably for research in the Water Resources Division and for geological resource assessments.
Although the request includes several million dollars to upgrade seismic and stream gage networks, the amount is a tiny fraction of what the USGS hoped to achieve. Recent survey reports and congressional authorizing legislation have called for an investment of $170 million over five years to develop the Advanced National Seismic System, as well as a significant investment to modernize the national stream gage network. The need for these investments has so far fallen on deaf ears at the White House Office of Manage- ment and Budget.

Recent survey reports and congressional authorizing legislation have called for an investment of $170 million over five years to develop the Advanced National Seismic System, as well as a significant investment to modernize the national stream gage network. The need for these investments has so far fallen on deaf ears at the White House Office of Management and Budget.

At the Department of Energy, the request for Fossil Energy research and development is up 7.2 percent, but that increase masks a substantial 8.2 percent decrease for the petroleum program, which has historically conducted the bulk of upstream (geoscience-related) research. The request shifts funds from upstream research in order to fund a massive increase in research directed at natural gas infrastructure reliability and other downstream research.

NASA has been reveling in its first requested increase in seven years, but the Office of Earth Science takes a 2.6 percent hit. A reorganization of NASA’s internal budget structure makes it difficult to determine the significance of this cut for actual earth science research, as opposed to satellite operations and data management. When the budgetary dust settles, there may be good news yet.

For the second year running, EPA has requested increases for all of its budget accounts except the Sound Science account, again slated for a budget cut. Critics of the agency might be tempted to read something into this move.

The final bit of bad news for the geosciences is that any or all of the good news will turn into bad news unless geoscientists actively promote the value of these investments to their representatives and senators. So spread the good news!

Applegate is director of the Government Affairs Program at the American Geological Institute.

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