Budget Battleground

By Sampson, Neil | American Forests, November-December 1989 | Go to article overview

Budget Battleground


Sampson, Neil, American Forests


In the decade of the 1980s, the federal government of the United States dramatically altered its spending patterns.

The national politics of the decade were dominated by a President whose goals included the strengthening of the nation's defense establishment and the reduction of spending on domestic programs, Those goals, although accepted only reluctantly and partially by the Congress, were largely realized through the federal budget process.

Defense spending rose dramatically, and when other programs could not be cut enough to offset that spending (and taxes were lowered), the result was a huge federal deficit.

Throughout the decade, public support for the President's policies remained high, despite the spiraling deficit.

The budgets for federal natural-resource programs clearly reflected the impact of those spending policies. A review of the federal spending trends as documented annually by the Office of Management and Budget in its massive federal budget documents shows the magnitude of the changes.

The trend in federal spending for Natural Resource and Environment (NRE) programs is shown as a percentage of total federal outlays.

Within the federal budget, the NRE sector contains five major groups of programs and agencies. They include Water Resources (Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers); Conservation and Land Management U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Soil Conservation Service, Mining Reclamation, Conservation Reserve); Pollution Control and Abatement (Environmental Protection Agency, Superfund); Recreation and Parks (National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service)- and Other (U.S. Geological Survey, Bureau of Mines, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).

In total, this NRE budget accounts for the Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, along with huge chunks of the Departmentof Agriculture and portions of the Departments of Commerce and Defense. In 1989, the total dollar outlay for all these programs was somewhere in the range of 16.5 billion, out of total federal outlays of about $1,137 billion. (That's 1.1 trillion dollars, for those who like big numbers.)

As can be readily seen, the portion of total federal spending dedicated to environmental programs peaked in 1978, when it reached about three cents out of every federal dollar. It dropped dramatically during the final years of the Carter Administration and the early years of the Reagan Administration, falling to 1.5 cents by 1982. In general, it has remained at that level since that time, as the graph indicates.

(Most people feel that the biggest drop in federal attention to natural-resource spending came under President Reagan.

The big drop in proportionate spending occurred in 1979-1981, before the change in Administrations. The public pressure and political shifts were already in place, and perhaps Reagan's election victory in 1981 was more of a reflection of the strength of this trend than a cause of it.)

It is important to realize that these figures reflect the budget priorities that resulted from Congressional action, not the proposals contained in each year's Presidential budget. Each year, the Reagan Administration tried to cut far more from the natural-resource budgets than the Congress would allow. In 1989, for example, the President would have lowered natural-resource spending to barely one cent out of every federal dollar if his proposals had been accepted by Congress.

Several times during the decade, the elimination of entire agencies or program areas in the natural-resources field was proposed by the President. Each time, these proposals were rejected by the Congress.

Included in these "zero-out" proposals were the Soil Conservation Service, the Extension Service, and virtually an of the state and private forestry programs of the U.S. Forest Service.

Several programs did suffer significant reductions, and in others, money collected from the public for a conservation purpose was simply never used for the intended purpose. …

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