|POLITICAL SCENE||April 1997|
A year ago, budget battles and blizzards shut down the government and delayed the February release of the President's fiscal year (FY) 1997 budget request. When it did arrive, much of the government was still operating on temporary spending measures, and it was late spring before the prior year's budget was finally settled. Both political and atmospheric conditions have been more favorable this year, and the President released his FY 1998 budget request on time to a Congress awash in calls for bipartisan cooperation rather than confrontation.
For science and technology programs overall, the President has requested a 2.2-percent increase, not quite enough to cover inflation. In releasing the request, Presidential Science Advisor Jack Gibbons spoke of having "gone through the narrows of the 104th Congress" and of looking forward to bipartisan support for a strong research program in the 105th Congress.
As the table below shows, changes in geoscience programs are for the most part quite small and lag behind increases for science and technology programs as a whole. As in previous years, the American Geological Institute (AGI) will testify at congressional hearings in support of funding for the geosciences. AGI is also participating in several science community-wide efforts to increase federal investment in science and technology beyond simply keeping up with inflation.
U.S. Geological Survey
In both the past two years, the budget request for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has included increases for the Biological Resources Division to restore funds lost when the National Biological Service was eliminated and its functions transferred to the survey. Congress responded with flat funding last year and will likely do the same this year as well.
The Water Resources Division's request includes $9 million for the President's Kalamazoo initiative to study the quality of 75 metropolitan water systems. Since the division's overall increase is only $1.9 million, most of the funds for the initiative would come from existing programs.
The Geologic Division's budget would decrease $1.6 million, roughly the same cut as in FY 1997. The budget includes a $3-million increase to cover the costs of taking over maintenance of the Global Seismographic Network. That increase is offset by cuts to the division's Continental Surveys account ($2.8 million) and the National Cooperative Geologic Mapping Program ($1.7 million), both designated as low priorities.
National Science Foundation
Although the National Science Foundation (NSF) as a whole is slated for a 3-percent increase, the Geosciences Directorate would receive only a 1.5- percent increase. At a budget briefing held for NSF stakeholders, the reason given for the smaller increase was a shift in funding for construction of the Polar Cap Observatory. Of the directorate's three divisions, Earth Sciences would receive a 1.5-percent increase to $95.13 million, Ocean Sciences would receive $206.16 million (up 2.1 percent), and Atmospheric Sciences would receive $151.32 million (up 0.6 percent).
Department of Energy
The budget request for the Department of Energy (DOE) includes $2.5 billion for accounts that fund basic research at the national laboratories and at universities. Within those accounts, the geosciences program is slated for a 6.7-percent increase to $23.5 million. In the request for Fossil Energy R&D, decreases in the coal program ($3 million) and the gas program ($17.3 million) are partially offset by increases in the petroleum R&D program ($6 million). The decreases in the coal and gas programs remove earlier congressional "earmarks" -- funds added in last year's appropriations process. With the congressional cast largely unchanged, those earmarks are likely to be restored at the expense of other DOE programs.
Caveats and Next Steps
How meaningful are the numbers in the President's request? After all, its release is just the midpoint in the overall budget process. How much of this request will become law once action shifts from within the executive to the legislative branch?
Despite the considerable acrimony displayed during the budget battles of recent years, final appropriations seldom vary by more than a couple of percent from the original request. Of course, even that small variation can mean big changes for individual programs. For example, the President has requested large increases for technology programs at the Department of Commerce that were cut by Congress last year, but the dislike for highly applied research reflected in those cuts is not likely to change.
The budget is now out of the President's hands until legislation arrives on his desk to be signed in the days and weeks prior to Oct. 1. He will not, of course, be without input and will surely let Congress know how much it can change without risking a presidential veto (a power that could be expanded to include the line-item veto) and an even riskier government shutdown.
For more information on FY 1998 budget, check the Government Affairs home page.