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Political Scene

Now We Must Conserve
Linda Rowan

As the Bush administration and energy companies undertake a public campaign for energy conservation in response to this fall’s Gulf Coast hurricanes and rising energy prices, some members in Congress are calling for a different sort of conservation — in spending. The 109th Congress passed a $286 billion transportation bill, with 6,371 special projects; a $12.3 billion energy bill, with indeterminate additional costs for loan guarantees and other incentives; an $82 billion emergency supplemental bill for the “global war on terror,” primarily for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan; and $71 billion in emergency supplemental bills for Hurricane Katrina relief.

Although the energy and transportation bills were billions of dollars more than the administration requested, President Bush signed all of them. (Bush is the first full-term president since John Quincy Adams to have not vetoed a single piece of legislation.) The estimated and unknown costs represent a mixture of direct spending, authorized spending that needs to be appropriated, and tax breaks and other incentives, mostly for corporations. The big spending and sharp reduction in revenues will exacerbate the growing federal deficit and have stalled the fiscal year 2006 (FY06) appropriations. As a result, a growing number of congressional members are warning of a fiscal crisis and are rallying for conservation of revenues from other government programs.

A growing number of congressional members are warning of a fiscal crisis and are rallying for conservation of revenues.
In April, Congress had agreed to $70 billion in tax breaks and $35 billion in mandatory spending cuts as part of its budget resolution. Congress delayed the reconciliation of the budget resolution until Nov. 18 because of the fiscal quagmire, leaving the government without a budget as FY06 began on Oct. 1. Congressional members disagree about the validity of large tax cuts that benefit primarily higher income taxpayers while requiring even larger cuts in Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps and student loans that tend to benefit lower income taxpayers. Some in Congress have opposed the tax breaks in the budget resolution and decried the spending for special projects in the transportation bill, leading to broadening concern within Congress and the administration that spending and cutting priorities are misplaced right now.

The unchecked spending and continued demand for tax cuts leaves precariously uncertain the budgets of key federal science agencies, including the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and the offices of Fossil Energy and Science within the Department of Energy (DOE). Each agency has started the new fiscal year with an indeterminate budget as it uses either the fiscal year 2005-enacted level, the House bill funding level or the Senate bill funding level — whichever is the lowest of the three — until the FY06 budget is resolved.

Significant differences between the House and Senate bills are also complicating budget matters. The Senate bill gives NOAA $1 billion more, NIST $295 million more, NASA $75 million less and NSF $113 million less than the House bill. The Senate bill also delays the appropriation of $1 billion from DOE for the U.S. portion of its commitment to ITER, an international project to create fusion-based energy. Even without this billion-dollar commitment, the highest possible total funding for NSF, NASA, NOAA, NIST, USGS and the two offices that support some of DOE’s science would be nearly stagnant at about $32.7 billion. These science agencies would have difficulties maintaining their core programs at the currently proposed levels, and yet even more cuts are being suggested.

Congressional proponents of the tax cuts in the budget resolution believe that federal spending can be reduced, and some have suggested a 1 to 5 percent cut across most departments, including the science agencies. A few congressional members have even suggested that the reductions be applied to the Department of Defense, which is slated for a $445 to $450 billion budget for FY06. Such cuts do little to reduce the federal deficit, estimated to be about $503 billion in FY06, by a significant amount, but would decimate the science agencies.

Many of the authorized federal earth science programs that remain unfunded or underfunded have particular relevance to current events and the short- to long-term health of our nation. NIST needs $3 million to carry out its mission to lead the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program. USGS needs tens of millions of dollars to support instrumentation for earthquake, volcanic and landslide hazards; water-level and water-quality instrumentation for hazards and water resources; and advanced technological support for geologic mapping. For example, USGS provided general and specialized geospatial maps for emergency response in New Orleans, to help locate 911 callers when street addresses became useless in flooded areas after Hurricane Katrina.

NASA has cost overruns of more than $1 billion for its shuttle program and next-generation space telescope. The agency seems unlikely to be able to complete the space station, accelerate the development of the next-generation space shuttle, and begin the president’s initiatives to the moon and then Mars without an infusion of billions of extra dollars.

NOAA needs hundreds of millions of dollars to support instrumentation — such as anemometers, supercomputers and airplanes — for hurricane observations and modeling. modeling. DOE needs tens of millions in funding for research and development of fossil fuel energy and renewable energy resources, at a time when the United States should explore for more energy resources and diversify its energy portfolio.

Earth scientists must continue to make a concise, constructive and compelling case for conservative and consistent increases in science research and education funding, to help mitigate natural hazards and sustain natural resources.

In fact, advances in earth science would reduce the costs associated with damage caused by natural hazards, as well as the losses created by the mismanagement of natural resources, providing a greater return on federal investments. Apathy and cynicism will not change the special-interest and reactionary federal spending in Congress. Now is the time for conservation and communication.
Rowan is director of the American Geological Institute’s Government Affairs Program. E-mail: rowan@agiweb.org.

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