An unusual budget cycle

For more than 30 years, I’ve covered the federal budget on and off — mostly on. And in a “good” year I find it one of the most onerous of my tasks. But this wasn’t a good year. In fact, it was unquestionably the worst ever for those charged with making sense of what has been proposed.
Ironically, science programs — the ones our readers care about most — may make out like relative bandits this year. It’s confirming that, or whatever a year’s trends might be, that perennially prove a challenge for budget watchers. And that challenge was raised to a whole new level this year.
In a normal year…
Each spring, the president releases a budget blueprint for federal spending. In most years, that release is previewed during a series of briefings for the news media. Reporters start the budget-rollout day by tramping up to the Government Printing Office, a few blocks north and west of the Capitol, to pick up an armload of paperback tomes the size of major metropolitan phone books. Each is slightly different and tends to be chock full of tables, dense text and economic projections.
At this point, the numbers inside them are embargoed, meaning they not available for public consumption for another couple hours. But reporters would be hard pressed to do much with the budget in the early hours since navigating the path to the details that interest them most normally requires the help of a seasoned Sherpa guide.
Protracted rollout
But this year was different. Barack Obama released his initial budget plan on Feb. 26. And that’s all it was  — a rather vague, broad-brush outline of where the president wanted Congress to spend money, and how much, in the coming year. No phonebook-size collection of tables was available to itemize spending projections for every major program in the federal government. Just a measly 134-page overview.
Details were for later. On May 8, the administration unveiled its first more detailed spending books. The first was a tiny but impactful volume whose title said it all: Terminations, Reductions, and Savings: Budget of the U.S. Government. If you were a federal manager, you had to pray your program wasn’t listed in this grim little book.

The second was a 1,374-page book titled simply: Appendix: Budget of the U.S. Government. It listed line by line what the administration would like to spend on each federal program. But there was precious little accompanying text to offer perspective on those numbers or the programs to which they referred.
Books offering those supplemental details would emerge the following week. So for those of us trying to write a budget story on May 8, we had to hunt down budget Sherpas. The administration makes those guides available at the press briefings, usually several hours after we initially get access to its budget books. For reporters, deciding which briefing to attend was complicated by the fact that many are held concurrently across town or at overlapping times.
And unique this year, budgetary data was not available uniformly across the government. For instance, details on Obama’s plan for the National Science Foundation — the nation’s leading sponsor of basic science within the academic sector — was not readily available on May 8. Even to the NSF staff. And it wouldn’t be shared with the public for another full week.
Also not available for public consumption on May 8: the administration’s projected inflation rate for 2009. Why is that important?

If inflation is, for instance, projected to run 3 percent, a program slated for a 2 percent increase in funding would actually be on track to take a cut. So it’s helpful to knowthe projected buying power of a dollar during the year in which it will be spent.

When I called the Office of Management and Budget on May 7 and again on May 8 to learn what the inflation rate was estimated to be, I learned that it would not be released for another four days. It was part of a package of economic “assumptions”, I learned, and those assumptions were scheduled for release the following week.

And the number was: -0.6 percent. Which means the buying power of a dollar at the start of fiscal year 2010 (i.e. Oct. 1, 2009) will actually be somewhat higher than a year earlier. A relative novelty. But don’t get used to that. OMB anticipates the inflation rate for 2010 will be 1.6 percent — back on an uphill climb, albeit at less than half the rate seen in 2008.
Unreconciled differences
Some federal agencies didn’t hold briefings on May 8 to describe the administration’s blueprint for their budgets — or they didn’t offer written interpretations of the gazillions of numbers in the budget Appendix for hours, if not days. And even when such materials became available, reporters and other budget watchers found it next to impossible to reconcile some statements with the numbers that appeared in tables describing the administration’s wish list.

I can offer one frustrating example that I ran across today while trying to fact check figures issued at the NASA briefing by the agency’s acting administrator, Christopher Scolese. He had said that president was so enthusiastic about the agency’s programs that Obama targeted increases this year of $630 million for space exploration studies, $456 million for NASA’s science program and $253 million for aeronautics programs (including one project to develop quieter, less polluting aircraft).

The tables that NASA had issued for those sections of its budget didn’t contain those numbers. And repeated calls to the agency for help to match Scolese’s report with the tables weren’t returned until today.
As it turns out, the numbers that Scolese offered — while strictly true — were also more than a little misleading. He presented the numbers as if they were increases being proposed for fiscal year 2010 — spending to exceed this year’s budget. In fact, those increases represented the proposed spending in those areas for next year — PLUS a one-time influx of funds to the agency from the president’s stimulus package, AND a bonus appropriated by Congress for spending this year (over and above what the Bush administration had initially proposed to be spent in 2009). In other words, the Scolese number contained some funds to be spent in the current year and next year — all bundled together.
Separate them out and it turns out that NASA’s space exploration increase for FY 2010, independent of Stimulus Bill spending, would fall to just $225.4 million, the aeronautics increase would amount to just $59.5 million and the science budget wouldn’t increase at all. In fact, it would shrink, relative to FY 2009, by $4.8 million.
Bottom line: Covering the budget is hard work, getting the numbers to reconcile from one chart to another — or one document within an agency to another — is challenging, and the actual numbers issued may have a useful lifetime of no more than a month.
Is it any wonder why I (and so many of my media colleagues) hate covering the budget? Yet we continue to do it because the exercise maps the administration’s intent. And it points to where likely skirmishes will break out during the coming year as lawmakers write, argue over and ultimately pass the legislation that funds the activities of our federal government.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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