Political Scene

Dim Prospects for Geosciences ‘05
Larry Kennedy

It’s an election year and the third calendar year in the war on terror. And during this banner political year, I have had time at my home in Reno, Nev., to reflect on my experiences as a congressional science fellow, and to make some guesses regarding funding and policy decisions in 2004 that might have an impact on geoscience professionals.

With a slim majority in the Senate, the Republicans control both houses in Congress and the Executive Branch. Legislators are grappling with government reorganization undertaken to ensure domestic security. The economy is improving, but the federal deficit continues to expand.

In his proposed budget for fiscal year 2005 (FY05), President Bush provides strong increases in spending for defense and domestic security programs but limits other government programs to an average increase of 0.5 percent in order to “hold the line” on a $521 billion deficit. Unfortunately, an annual budget increase of only 0.5 percent doesn’t even keep pace with inflation and salary increases. Increases of only 3 percent represent flat funding. The budget process will be bruising.

With the exception of the National Science Foundation (NSF), most geoscience programs face dramatic spending cuts. Hopefully many of you participated in Congressional Visits Day on March 4 to make the case to your legislators that spending cuts to geological and water resource programs will adversely affect their constituents. The scientific community will have to work even harder to justify programs that must grow to provide guidance for future policy decisions and research, but that do not provide an immediate, tangible benefit.

One of the greatest impressions made on me during my fellowship is the immense power of the appropriation bills — and not just because of monies involved. Report language stipulates how certain programs are to be undertaken or how certain funds are to be spent. In addition, as the only measures that Congress must pass each year, the spending bills are important vehicles for modifying policies through amendments and riders — particularly for attaching provisions that might have little chance of passing on their own. Policies with important implications for geoscientists will be come up for action at different points during consideration of the FY05 spending bills, and may be at the epicenter of events at the end of the session.

Election ‘04

With only a handful of House races competitive this year, prospects for change in the 109th Congress focus on the 2004 Senate elections. Almost one-third of the senators are up for reelection, and the retirement of several prominent Democrats leaves several races open.

As they have done in the past several years, the president and House Republicans will generally work together to set the mark for negotiations with the Senate. The coincidence of the election cycle with the Republican’s narrow majority, coupled with events at the close of the session last fall, doesn’t bode well for bipartisan cooperation in 2004. We appear to be in for an especially rancorous year as each major party plays to its political base and tries to motivate its constituency for the election.

Appropriating the geosciences

Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) — who is not on the Senate Appropriations Committee — regularly annoys many appropriators with his denunciations of the earmarks and “pork” included in spending bills. His favorite targets are those spending items added to appropriations that are not related to the primary mission of the agencies being funded. Why did senators provide the Department of Defense with $2 million to fund “Shakespeare in the military”?

The appropriations process has shortcomings. But these should not detract from the oversight role that enables Congress to address shortcomings in budgets proposed by the executive branch. Unfortunately, the geoscience community will be asking Congress to do just that again this year.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) takes it on the chin again — you know it’s bad when the bureau isn’t even mentioned in the Department of Interior (DOI) press release for the FY05 budget. Cuts in all major program areas contribute to a bureau-wide reduction of $18.2 million, or 2 percent relative to FY04 funding. Introduction of a new line item that consolidates funding for information technology throughout the bureau makes it difficult to determine the actual budget impact, but Cooperative Geologic Mapping, Geologic Resource Assessment and Water Resources Investigations appear to be the hardest hit.

Despite water shortages, threats to watersheds and water supplies, and impaired or depleted aquifers, the administration demonstrates little enthusiasm for securing the nation’s water resources. Cuts to USGS programs pale in comparison to the proposed 17 percent cut to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers water projects and the 9 percent cut to the Enivornmental Protection Agency (EPA). Federal grants totaling $21 million under the “Water 2025 Initiative” (introduced last year by DOI Secretary Gale Norton to promote water management through federal partnerships with state and local entities) do little to offset spending cuts to other water-related programs.

Unfortunately, the proposed cuts to water resource programs should come as no surprise. The administration’s long-term budget plan, as indicated by the Office of Management and Budget, calls for expenditures on these programs to decrease by 5 to 10 percent over the next five years.

Although the NSF budget increase of 4.7 percent does not put it on track to reach the goal set two years ago of doubling NSF funding by FY07, it represents a strong commitment to research in a difficult budget year. Two major geoscientific research projects, EarthScope and the international Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, received strong support. Meanwhile, proposed funding for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science and energy programs is down 2 percent from FY04 levels.

As the federal agencies are precluded from lobbying Congress, we need to impress our legislators with the strategic nature of our natural resource and environmental programs as they compete for adequate funding with the priorities of the day. Last year’s success in restoring cuts made to USGS programs, however, will be hard to match.

The large deficit and flat funding for most programs in the FY05 budget will make it exceedingly difficult for legislators to restore spending cuts, let alone find ways to increase funding as they did in 2003.

A rough ride

The process of funding the geoscience programs in the next budget year is going to be rough. Not only will the budget negotiations be difficult, but the Interior and Related Agencies appropriations bill — which funds USGS and major geoscience programs in the Minerals Management Service, DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy and land management agencies — has also long been a favorite target for controversial riders.

The Bush administration’s reversal of many Clinton-era land management and environmental policies has energized the perennial confrontation between environmentalists and industry over the development of energy and natural resources on public lands. In 2004, with Republicans in the driver’s seat, the FY05 spending bill will almost assuredly contain provisions favorable to industry that will provoke a strong Democratic reaction and provide fodder for the campaign.

Kennedy was last year’s American Geological Institute Congressional Science Fellow. Support for the AGI fellowship is provided by the AGI Foundation. Email:

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