Ferreting out the bottom line

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 tend to care about most — may make out like relative bandits this year. But confirming that, or whatever a year’s trend might be, proves a perennial challenge for budget watchers. And that challenge was raised to a whole new level this year.

Protracted rollout
Each spring, the president releases a budget blueprint for federal spending. Reporters start budget day by tramping up to the Government Printing Office a few blocks from 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.

But not this year. At least not when Barack Obama initially unveiled his budget plan on Feb. 26. A relatively puny 134-page overview offered a general, broad-brush outline of where the president would spend money.

Details wouldn’t emerge for another 10 weeks, when on May 6 a pair of budget books — far from the complete set — were released. One 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 slim, grim volume.

The second was a hefty 1,374-page tome titled simply: Appendix: Budget of the U.S. Government. It listed line by line how much the administration was asking Congress to allocate for each federal program. But there was very little text to offer perspective on the programs those numbers referred to and the reason behind any shifts in trends.

So for those of us trying to write a budget story on May 7, we had to hunt down a Sherpa guide to navigate through the avalanche of numbers. The administration makes those guides available at press briefings. But complicating our access is the fact that many briefings are held concurrently across town or at overlapping times.

Missing in action
Also unique this year, budgetary details were delivered somewhat piecemeal. For instance, details on May 7 for proposed spending by the National Science Foundation — the nation’s leading sponsor of basic science within the academic sector — were shoehorned into 5 pages of the nearly 1,400-page budget appendix. Even the outline of spending recommended for the Corps of Engineers ran 18 pages, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s plan ran 16 pages.

According to NSF’s media-affairs staff, the agency’s managers weren’t privy to internal budget particulars on budget-rollout day. The Office of Management and Budget released details the following week, which were ready for public consumption on May 14.

Also MIA on budget-release day: the anticipated inflation rate for 2009. This is a very important economic nugget. For instance, when inflation is projected to run 3 percent, a program slated for a 2 percent increase in funding would actually be on track to take a cut in buying power. As a result, many reporters try to adjust their description of administration requests for spending in the coming fiscal year within the context of the estimated inflation rate.

Trust me, OMB never brags about this number, often burying it in the morass of budget details and economic assumptions that underpin a given year’s spending plan. But if ever there was a year to not bury it, this was it.

I finally tracked down the estimated inflation rate for 2009, yesterday: -0.6 percent. It it proves true, 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, OMB says. That’s a relative novelty and a sad byproduct of the moribund economy. By 2010, OMB expects inflation will resume, but at only 1.6 percent — less than half the rate experienced last year.

Some agencies didn’t hold budget briefings on May 7 and others provided details running dozens — in some cases hundreds — of pages. These situations can under- or overwhelm reporters who are facing an imminent deadline. The most expedient approach to identifying highlights and lowlights is to focus on what agency administrators report during briefings or in prepared statements.

But such agency syntheses can sometimes cloud clarity, not resolve trends. One case in point: Increases reported for NASA.

At the agency’s briefing, NASA associate administrator Christopher Scolese noted that the president was so enthusiastic about the space agency’s programs that Obama enthusiastically recommended big increases this year: They would amount to a bonus of $630 million for space exploration studies, $456 million for science and $253 million for aeronautics programs. But online budgetary tables didn’t contain those numbers.

In time, I got the agency to clarify how Scolese arrived at these amounts. And although technically accurate, I (for one) was left with the impression that these “increases” amounted to bonuses above and beyond spending in the current fiscal year.

It turned out that they represented that number — PLUS a one-time influx of funds to the agency from the president’s stimulus package (to be spent over a two-year period), AND any money that Congress had allocated to the agency for the current fiscal year that exceeded an amount that had been requested by the Bush administration. So the increases Scolese cited represented funds to be spent in the current year and next year — all bundled together.

Separate them out and NASA’s space exploration spending for FY 2010, independent of stimulus funds, would increase by only $225.4 million — or just a third as much as Scolese had indicated. The aeronautics increase would drop to roughly a quarter of what Scolese had mentioned. And the science budget wouldn’t increase at all. It would shrink, relative to FY 2009, by $4.8 million.

Bottom line: Covering the budget is hard work, reconciling numbers between charts or documents can be challenging, and published numbers 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? But we do it because it highlights the intent of the administration — and where skirmishes between the Congress and White House are likely to erupt over pet projects or conflicting agendas.

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.

More Stories from Science News on Humans