Third, and more fundamental, is the fact that budgetary data are an imperfect indicator of priority. The spending levels of different federal programs do indicate that society (through its government) has decided to allocate more money for one than the other, which can be construed as an indicator of preference, or a measure of priority. Yet some things cost more by nature. Launching a satellite to monitor conditions in the upper atmosphere may be considerably more expensive than a project that involves conducting national field studies of water quality. Their costs may differ by a factor of ten or even 100. This does not necessarily mean that one is 100 times more important than the other.
Fourth, in judging the relations between environmental budgets and statements of environmental goals there is the problem of whose goals are "national goals." In our pluralistic society, there may be numerous conflicting views of what constitutes an appropriate set of national goals for the environment. Indeed, the very existence of the Forum for which this paper has been prepared, is evidence of the lack of consensus on such goals.
Finally, it should be remembered that the federal government is not the only source of funds for environmental programs. State and local governments as well as the private sector expend considerable sums on programs and activities related to the environment. None of these are included in the present analysis. The federal government may choose to spend more or less on a particular activity not because it is more or less important, but because others are already covering it adequately.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the federal government's flagship agency for environmental regulation, for mitigation and remediation of problems caused by environmental pollution, for environmental monitoring, and for R&D related to these missions. It was formed in 1970 by bringing together units from several different federal departments and agencies, including components of the Department of the Interior and the then-Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. EPA's responsibilities include administration of programs under the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and several other major pieces of environmental legislation. Although most definitions of environmental programs include a considerable number of other federal activities, the level of funding for EPA and trends in the agency's budget are useful indicators of the priority of environmental protection at the federal level.