|POLITICAL SCENE||December 1997|
The process of appropriating funds for federal agencies is supposed to wind down by October 1, the start of each new fiscal year. This fall, however, most of the fiscal year (FY) 1998 appropriations bills did not stagger across the finish line until mid-October or later, and a few were still out on the course when Congress began a two-month recess in mid-November. Agencies covered by those stragglers are funded at the prior year's level, under continuing resolutions. Given all the talk of declining federal budgets, such an arrangement might sound like a reprieve, but in fact most geoscience-related agencies are receiving budget increases in FY 1998, including the National Science Foundation (up 5 percent), U.S. Geological Survey (up 2.5 percent), and Environmental Protection Agency (up 8.3 percent).*
A new budget scenario
Why all the good news for science agencies? Less than two years ago, groups that tracked federal funding for research and development (R&D) were projecting future cuts as high as 33 percent as nondefense discretionary spending was squeezed between demand for a balanced budget and untouchable but ever-growing entitlement spending. Yet last April, the presidents of nearly 50 science and engineering organizations felt emboldened enough to call for a 7 percent across-the-board increase in federal R&D spending for FY 1998, and nearly obtained it!
Several of these science community-wide efforts this past spring, including a Congressional Visits Day and exhibition on Capitol Hill of projects supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), have helped promote science as a wise investment in the future. Efforts such as these, that engage scientists to become more active constituents, are ultimately the key to future support for science, but they alone cannot explain the current increases.
Part of the answer lies in the balanced budget agreement negotiated last summer between President Clinton and the Congress. The two sides cut one another a mutual break by allowing domestic discretionary spending as well as the deficit to rise in the first year (FY 1998), deferring most of the large cuts needed to achieve a balanced budget until the next millenium. As a result, increases this year may not translate into increases in future years.
Outlook for '99
The terms of the budget agreement indicate that the FY 1998 increases are a one-shot deal, but the outlook for FY 1999 could be even better for two reasons. First, the strong economy appears likely to balance the budget without any help from Washington. The FY 1997 deficit, projected to be $128 billion when the fiscal year began, ended up at $22.6 billion, the lowest since 1974. If the strong economy can last, balancing the budget will require fewer spending cuts.
Second, much of the FY 1999 budget process will take place during the mid-term election campaign. Any strong medicine will be buffered by the need for election-year candy, a principal component in any incumbent's campaign strategy. One could argue that science agencies, lacking a well-defined local constituency, could fare poorly in such an environment and fall prey to pork- barrel politics. On the other hand, politicians may be loathe to be perceived as anti-science at a time when science enjoys a broad, if shallow, popularity. The outcome may hinge on how well scientists communicate the benefits that science brings to the nation -- and to individual congressional districts.
Such a positive outlook must be tempered by early words from the Clinton administration that there is no room in the FY 1999 budget request, due this coming February, for research increases. The FY 1999 budget process is already well under way within the executive branch and has been since even before the last budget request was released.
The executive branch budget process consists of several rounds of horse-trading between federal agencies and the White House Office of Management and Budget to produce the president's budget request, which in turn initiates the congressional phase of the process again. The bills that emerge from Congress roughly seven months later seldom deviate from the president's request by more than a couple of percentage points -- which emphasizes how important it is for scientists to make their priorities known to both the administration and the Congress. It is usually easier to retain funding for an item included in the president's request than it is to add a line item later on during the congressional phase. Unless, that is, your representative or senator happens to chair a relevant appropriations subcommittee.
A decade of investment
With the budget process taking longer each year, many have called for a shift to a two-year budget cycle in which a single bill would provide funds for two fiscal years. Such a plan seems sensible, given that Congress works on a two-year election cycle. Annual appropriations can produce unpredictable fluctuations that are a major destabilizing element for long-term programs, particularly those with international collaborators. Bills that authorize funds for agencies and programs often do so for multiple years, so why not appropriations as well?
Because money is power. A biennial process offers Congress half as many opportunities to serve their constituents with local projects, the proverbial pork. In that context, budgetary stability is no substitute for bringing home the bacon.
Although scientists cannot change the annual appropriations cycle, they can mitigate its effects by putting Congress on record in support of long-term increases for research funding. Spurred on by the positive reaction to earlier community-wide efforts, more than 100 science and engineering societies (including AGI and a number of its member societies) have called on Congress and the administration "to double the current level of investment in research within the next ten years."
Society presidents released the statement during a Capitol Hill press conference in October at which Sen. Phil Gramm (R- Texas) unveiled his bipartisan National Research Investment Act (S. 1305). Joining Gramm at the news conference were cosponsors Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), and Senate Budget Committee chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.). The bill calls for a doubling of research funding, but it excludes research at the Department of the Interior, reportedly due to Gramm's lingering concerns over the former National Biological Service, now part of the U.S. Geological Survey. That exclusion is a reminder that even a rising tide for science requires active involvement by the geoscientists to ensure that their priorities are recognized. AGI is working to include Interior as an amendment to the bill.
The presence of four senators on the dais with scientific society presidents is a good sign that at least some members of Congress see political advantage -- and even national benefit -- in championing science. The absence of 96 others, however, is a reminder that there is much work left to be done.
AGI Director of Government Affairs, firstname.lastname@example.org
* The AGI web site (www.agiweb.org) includes a complete rundown on the outcome of the FY 1998 appropriations process for geoscience-related agencies.
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