The 2015 federal budget: rite of spring Washington-DC style

In case you needed any reminding, yesterday was the first day of spring. The poet Tennyson nicely articulated spring’s iconic signs:

…In the spring a fuller crimson comes upon the robin’s breast

In the spring the wanton lapwing gets himself another crest

In the spring a livelier iris changes on the burnished dove

In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love…   

 – Alfred Lord Tennyson, Locksley Hall

It’s clear Tennyson had no experience of spring inside the Beltway of Washington, DC. Had he lived here, in this present day, he’d surely have replaced the foot soldier of his poem with a lobbyist, and he’d have said something along the lines of “an advocate’s fancy lightly turns to lines of budget.”  With the most recent snowstorm just days behind us, and at least one more snow likely standing between us and this year’s Cherry Blossom Festival, the spring rites of the federal budget process seem the only dependable indicators of where we are on the calendar.

The President’s State of the Union message and the release of the proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year 2015 have kicked off this year’s annual rite/ritual. One key point to note is that at $4T, the budget is of a scale and size so vast as to defy individual comprehension and preclude any simple characterization. There’s summary material to be sure, but the budget is complex and multi-faceted. The material has a nature of a fractal. The individual Cabinet-level pieces look similar to the whole. In fact, they can themselves be subdivided multiple times with little apparent sign of any emerging simplicity.

Spring in Washington is thus a cascade of budget presentations. It starts with an OMB overview. That’s followed with Secretarial-level expositions on budgets for the respective Cabinet-level Departments. Agency budget briefings come next. It’s then the turn of agency line offices. Even at this level, the budget amounts often represent or exceed $1B. And so on down. The full rollout takes weeks. (Even before it ends, the participants take the same festivities up to Congressional hearings on Capitol Hill, where the conversation continues for months…)

The budget presentations at these levels have themselves become highly stylized over the years. At each level, senior leadership gathers on stage at some appropriate venue. One or more give a prepared overview, indicating highlights – new thrusts and major changes from the previous year. The fuller leadership then responds to questions from the audience, usually a blend of invited stakeholders and interested news media from outside government. In recent years, technology has made it possible for people to participate by internet and phone, and call in questions remotely. Questions tend to come from groups affected by any proposed budget cuts.

NOAA (one agency of many) presented its 2015 proposed budget at just such an occasion on Tuesday of this week. If interested, you can find links to an audio recording of the briefing, a news release, and the NOAA budget blue book here. Veteran budget observers might see a certain sameness in these events year-on-year, but for me, they’re always fascinating. Before the invention of on-line banking, people used to say, “If you want to learn someone’s real priorities in life, take a look at his/her checkbook.” This is no less true for the federal government.The particulars of the budget speak for themselves, and each stakeholder/participant should certainly form his/her own conclusion. But please indulge a few personal impressions:

It was great to hear from Dr. Kathryn Sullivan as a duly confirmed Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator versus the acting role she’d shouldered for what seemed like an eternity (dating back, in different ways, longer than last year’s budget rollout). As last year, she demonstrated a command of the budget and programs in both their comprehensive aspects and their details; the line office leadership also seemed comfortable with the Q&A. The budget and programs showed signs of benefiting from the cessation of sequestrations, continuing resolutions, and government shutdowns that had characterized the recent past. This calm, and a firmer budget foundation, allow NOAA leadership to address a range of staffing and programmatic issues that have festered for many months. It’s natural to wish for more resources in virtually every aspect of NOAA’s work. But the budget request contains substantial increases for critical NOAA infrastructure, science and innovation, and on-the-ground emphasis on building community-level resilience.

Hmm. Not bad! These increases suggest that despite the occasional kerfluffle over fracking, the Keystone pipeline, hazard supplementals, fisheries management, etc., both political parties see the Earth observations, science, and services agenda of NOAA and other agencies as non-partisan and deserving of greater attention and emphasis. They augur well for growing budgets and resources continuing in future budget years.

So, even if we do have more snow in the DC forecast, a kind of budget spring thaw is coming. Something to celebrate. You might take the occasion to listen to Stravinsky’s classic The Rite of Spring.

Even if you’re not from DC.

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One Response to The 2015 federal budget: rite of spring Washington-DC style

  1. Given the less than sterling efforts of the climate modeling community, a [re-]emphasis on more and better observational data is certainly welcome – and needed. Climate may set a baseline, but it’s weather that kills – let’s also focus on continuing the yeoman work being done to improve local and regional forecasting!

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