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The federal budget is the central process of American government. Through the budget process, incommensurable quantities are compared, priorities are set, and the plans of federal agencies are laid out for Congress and the public to review, approve, modify, or reject. If one is to ask, therefore, what are the nation's priorities with regard to the environment, the federal budget is an obvious place to look for the answer. This paper is an attempt to take a rough first cut at examining national environmental priorities using federal budget data as its primary source. Specifically, it will attempt to respond to several questions:

  • How are federal environmental priorities reflected in budgetary patterns and trends?

  • How have these priorities shifted over the past several years?

  • What part does environmental R&D play in overall federal funding for environmental programs?

  • How does funding for environmental R&D compare to overall federal R&D funding?

  • What can be said about the relation between funding for environmental programs and current statements of environmental goals?

Caveats Regarding the Analysis

Budget analysis is a complex and tedious undertaking. Time and resource constraints limit this paper to no more than a first approximation at responding to the above questions. In addition, several conceptual and practical issues that may limit the utility of the analysis should be noted.

First is the difficulty of defining environmental programs in an unambiguous manner. A huge variety of government activities impact the environment and could be classified as environmental programs. These range from energy production and conservation programs to agricultural efforts (e.g., promotion of integrated pest management) to outdoor recreation programs. At some level, it is necessary to make fairly arbitrary distinctions in order to limit the scope of "environmental." The umbrella covering environmental programs is discussed below. Differing definitions will, of course, yield different results.

Second is the difficulty of obtaining budget data at an appropriate level of aggregation. Extracting information about individual programs from federal budget documents is an arduous task when the subject is the current year's budget. The job is made infinitely more difficult in looking at trend data, as the budget documents tend to be ephemeral and organizational changes often make it difficult to track programs from year to year.

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