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The Science of VA-HUD and the 302(b)s

by Melody Brown Burkins, GSA Congressional Science Fellow
Reprinted from GSA Today, v. 10, no. 6 (June 2000)

I do not remember being particularly eloquent in my Congressional Science Fellow interview, but I do remember my adamant, and parochial, answer to one question posed by an interviewer: "Do you believe science funding should be an entitlement?" Well, yes, I began to argue, science is a basic need of society, like food and water. There were several bemused looks around the table and at least one highly arched eyebrow as I continued. When it was over, I tried to take some solace in the fact that, though I had obviously sounded naive, I had sounded naive with conviction.

I have since come to terms with what my interviewers knew too well—in the world outside our universities, research labs, and classrooms, science funding is not always seen as a fundamental need of society. Instead, it is most assuredly seen as "discretionary," or optional, funding by those who make the budgetary rules. Furthermore, the science and technology dollars that do get allocated each year are hardly protected from one year to the next. Given the quirks of the federal budget process, science and technology programs must often compete directly with such seemingly disparate (yet important) initiatives as urban housing and rural development.

I have also realized that even a general understanding of the federal budget process is powerful information. True, the process is irritatingly political, always contentious, and often frustrating, but the creation of the federal budget is nevertheless the means by which hundreds of millions of dollars are allocated to scientists and their research institutions each year. It is no accident that all the major industries and interest groups in the United States, including major public and private science centers, have personnel dedicated to following budget maneuvers on the Hill.

In a previous essay for GSA Today, I argued that scientists should become more informed about the workings of public policy in order to best educate elected representatives about important science and technology issues. Here, I continue that argument with the suggestion that knowing the federal budget process is a must for scientists who want to become more involved in the policies that shape, and fund, their way of life.

Federal Budget 101

In the annual process of creating a federal budget, there are a few key milestones to remember. First, in January, there is the President's budget request. This is the budget proposal that the Administration submits to Congress and that contains the President's goals and program priorities for the following fiscal year. This is also the budget that the President expounds upon in the State of the Union address, and it is the budget that federal agency directors vigorously defend to Congress throughout the following year.

Next, in April (or soon after), Congress follows the Administration's proposal with a concurrent budget resolution. This is the budget proposal developed and strongly influenced by majority leaders in Congress. Its purpose is to set broad revenue and spending targets for 19 "functional" areas (from agriculture to veterans' benefits) over the next fiscal year. However, the resolution is not law. This budget plan is instead the official congressional response to the President's budget proposal. Depending on the political climate, the difference between the two plans can be fertile ground for strong disagreement.

Immediately following its presentation of a concurrent budget resolution, Congress breaks its proposed budget into thirteen major appropriations bills (see Table 1). To do this, the House and Senate appropriations committees must allocate funds—called 302(b) allocations after Section 302(b) in the Budget Act of 1974—to the 13 subcommittees that oversee each appropriations bill. Of particular interest to scientists, and especially earth systems scientists, are the Interior and VA-HUD appropriations bills that set annual funding levels for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), among other programs.

Throughout the spring and summer, all 13 subcommittees hold hearings, make compromises, and ultimately mark-up (finalize for an official committee vote) their appropriations bills. After each bill leaves committee, undoubtedly with some programs increased and others curtailed, it is ready for full House or Senate floor consideration.

Finally, sometime in October (it is hoped), the country receives an annual federal budget. This is the final budget that emerges after a full Congress—both House and Senate—further discusses, debates, and amends each of the 13 bills (as well as relevant tax legislation) AND receives a Presidential signature to make the budget into law. This process provides the legal authority for all federal agencies to obligate and/or spend funds in the next fiscal year. Once this is done, Congress breathes a collective sigh of relief, and then adjourns for its winter recess.

And, in January, the President's budget request arrives again....

Fiscal Year 2001—A Possible Science Squeeze?

As I write this in April of 2000, Congress seems a long way from collective sighs of relief. Congress did pass its concurrent budget resolution–a plan totaling $1.87 trillion, over $600 billion, or about 32% of the budget, in discretionary funds. However, though it was passed ahead of schedule, the plan is in no way bipartisan. In the House, the resolution passed along a largely party-line vote of 220 to 208 and, in the Senate, by a vote of 50 to 48 (four Republicans voted "no").

While partisan disagreement is expected, there are true differences of opinion concerning fiscal year 2001 spending. For example, the preliminary 302(b) allocations announced this week suggest that Congress will ask for significant decreases in several of the 13 appropriations bills, including the physical and natural science–rich VA-HUD and Interior appropriations bills. As currently proposed, the House allocation for VA-HUD is $403 million less than even an adjusted freeze of FY 2000 levels. The Interior bill is currently allocated $580 million less than last year.

Until October—Then FY 2002

It is, of course, far too early to tell how these preliminary allocations will truly affect the program objectives of major earth science and research agencies in FY 2001. These numbers are not yet set in stone—the Senate has yet to propose its 302(b)s—and committee debates will undoubtedly alter the specifics. In fact, I would argue, the funding levels for scientific programs throughout the budget could largely depend on the science community's response to currently proposed allocations. As the budget process is sped up in anticipation of the presidential election, there is no better time than now to contact your representatives with your opinions about FY 2001 science-funding priorities. Remember: While members of Congress must take a national view of all budget decisions, the way in which those decisions directly affect citizens in their home state—especially citizens who take time to write—is never totally ignored.

Remember, too, that while one year's budget (FY 2001) is being debated in the halls of Congress, the next (FY 2002) is being planned. Scientists can have a say in this process through federal science agency leadership, but also through the collective voice of a large scientific society. Carefully remaining nonpartisan, many societies (including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Geological Society of America, and the American Geophysical Union) have published "white papers," or opinion pieces on science and technology issues. In addition, many societies hold a "Congressional Visits" day each spring. If you missed GSA's this year, start thinking about next.

However you do it, let your elected representatives, both local and national, know your views. Let them hear your concerns about science funding, long-term budget priorities, and the economic and social benefits of science-related programs in your community or state. Call, write, or make a short appointment with someone on your representative's staff. With hundreds of millions of dollars at stake each year, it never hurts to speak up.

If you would like to learn more about the FY 2001 budget (perhaps so that you can better craft that letter to your representative), the Science and Society Web pages of the Geological Society of America and the American Geophysical Union have links to several relevant pages. In addition, the American Association for the Advancement of Science has an entire Web site devoted to FY 2001 budget analyses. Last but not least, the American Institute of Physics runs a valuable listserv that sends frequent and concise e-mail updates about legislative and budget events that most affect scientists and their research.

Keep watching those 302(b)s.

Melody Brown Burkins, 1999–2000 GSA-USGS Congressional Science Fellow, serves on the staff of Senator Patrick J. Leahy (Democrat—Vermont). This one-year fellowship is supported by GSA and by the U.S. Geological Survey, Department of the Interior, under Assistance Award 1434-HQ-97-GR-03188. The views and conclusions contained in this article are those of the author and should not be interpreted as necessarily representing the official policies, either expressed or implied, of the U.S. government or GSA. You can contact Burkins by mail at the Office of Senator Patrick Leahy, 433 Russell Senate Office Building, Washington, DC 20510, by phone at (202) 224-4242, or by e-mail.