The FY 2019 budget.

“The President proposes, the Congress disposes.” – old Washington, DC adage

Historically, U.S. presidents haven’t always submitted budgets to the Congress. In fact, prior to 1921, formulation of the budget was a jealously guarded Congressional prerogative. But as government grew, the increasing complexity and scale of the task began to overwhelm Congressional analytical resources. This led to the watershed Budget and Accounting Act of 1921. The Act consolidated spending agencies in both the executive and legislative branches. In particular, the Act established the Bureau of the Budget, which has since morphed into OMB, and a General Accounting Office (which would later become today’s Government Accountability Office). From that time forward, the president has been required to submit an annual budget for the entire federal government to the Congress.

Historians and political scientists have since observed that this milestone significantly eroded the separation of powers envisaged by the Founding Fathers, in effect establishing the President as Legislator-in-Chief, and institutionalizing the modern-day presidency.

It’s useful to remember that the President’s budget is never the last word; instead, as today’s quote reminds us, it’s a mere proposal – a point of departure for hearty debate and discussion across both the Senate and House, between the two chambers, and with the executive branch itself about what the final budget might look like. That’s a good thing; the resulting dialog, however polarized, can often lead to enhanced outcomes. Many opportunities for such improvement come to mind. Here are two or three of possible parochial interest to LOTRW readers.

The legislative outline for rebuilding infrastructure in America.

This material accompanied the budget; it addresses incentives; rural infrastructure; transformative projects; financing; public lands; disposition of federal real property; and federal capital financing in turn. Its 50-some pages provide a lot of detail, and merit reading in their entirety (and there’s already an extensive and growing amount of analysis out there as well). The Outline leads off in this way:

States and localities are best equipped [emphasis added] to understand the infrastructure investments needs of their communities. The infrastructure incentives program, described below, would encourage increased State, local, and private investment in infrastructure. This program would provide for targeted Federal investments, encourage innovation, streamline project delivery, and help transform the way infrastructure is designed, built, and maintained. Under this program, States and localities would receive incentives in the form of grants. Project sponsors selected for award would execute an agreement with express progress milestones. Federal incentive funds would be conditioned upon achieving the milestones within identified time frames…

… The Incentives Program would provide support to wide-ranging classes of assets, including the following governmental infrastructure: surface transportation and airports, passenger rail, ports and waterways, flood control, water supply, hydropower, water resources, drinking water facilities, wastewater facilities, stormwater facilities, and Brownfield and Superfund sites.

The assets/infrastructure covered include most of what the ASCE and other groups have described as critically important and needing perhaps $4 trillion in upgrades; to accomplish this the ASCE recommends increasing investment from all levels of government and the private sector from 2.5% of GDP to 3.5%.

Concerns and suggested amendments to this infrastructure are coming in from all corners. Much focuses on sale of airports and other assets, reliance on private-sector funding, etc. Rather than duplicate all that here, let’s suggest changing a single word – replacing “equipped” in the text above with the word “positioned,” and then reflect for a moment on the implications of that edit.

To say that localities are “equipped” to (understand their needs) is to suggest they have the analytical capability at their disposal needed to assess the adequacy of their infrastructure, relative to the future demands asked of it, the hazards and threats to continuity it will face, and so on. If they were so equipped, they might indeed be best “positioned” to make the call with respect to allocation of finite resources, taking into account this knowledge. In particular, they likely wouldn’t need to be told what to do on the basis of some top-down, command-and-control cookie-cutter kind of approach to infrastructure management imposed at a remote federal level.

The reality at the local level is somewhat different. Many communities if not most lack the environmental intelligence that could help them make their strategic planning effective. While they don’t necessarily need federal regulation, they could use information on their community demographics and trends in those demographics over the lifetime of the infrastructure in question: the prevailing climate; the likelihood of extremes of flood and drought, earthquakes, etc.; changes in landscape, habitat, biodiversity, and ecosystems; and the sensitivity of their community and its economy to such influences. Often such desired information is unavailable in any form; to develop it requires sustained federally funded R&D. Much of what is available is in federal hands; it needs to be made more accessible at the local level.

The good news is the steps required to develop and make available the needed environmental intelligence are inexpensive compared with the infrastructure costs per se.  That said, there are two clouds on the horizon:

1.Proposed budget cuts for the Earth sciences.

As reported by the American Institute of Physics, DoE budgets for biological and environmental sciences and energy efficiency and renewable energy; NASA Earth science missions; NOAA; USGS; EPA; and more – in short, essentially all efforts aimed at getting more information about how to live safely and successfully on our home planet – have been slated for substantial cuts.

2.Proposed budget cuts for STEM education, and for local access to federally-housed environmental intelligence.

Again, as reported by AIP, the education programs housed in respective science agencies – NASA, NOAA, and other agencies, as well as programs in those same agencies aimed at equipping local communities to make intelligent infrastructure investments, such as NOAA Sea Grant and the USGS Climate Science Centers, have also been slated for significant cuts or elimination.

These proposed cuts threaten to hamstring local and private-sector efforts to maintain and strengthen critical infrastructure. They will cramp efforts to grow the U.S. labor force needed to rebuild infrastructure. Worse, they would eliminate what up to now has been a U.S. competitive advantage in bidding for the some $100Trillion of infrastructure investment that will be made worldwide over the next two decades.  These proposed 2019 budget cuts, if enacted, could even lead to the perverse effect of incentivizing Chinese private infrastructure investment worldwide and perhaps even here in the United States at the expense  of our own.

Again, the good news: President and both houses/parties of Congress share common cause when it comes to rebuilding/maintaining infrastructure and creating American jobs; the program restorations needed to foster this amount to a few billion dollars, and the national conversation on the 2019 federal budget is in the early stages.

Let’s all stay in close touch.

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