Original from NASA. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

Budget Trade-offs—a Zero-Sum Game

By Chad English and COMPASS

Mar 25, 2013


Minute Read


“Should this dollar go to the NSF or to the FBI? It can’t go to both. You have to respect the people who make that decision.”

David Goldston of the Natural Resources Defense Council made this comment in front of a full room at the AAAS annual meeting last month. This is a very real choice, and it’s being set up right now through the federal budget process. There are thousands of people on Capitol Hill this week trying to make the case for their programs including probably hundreds of scientists and science supporters.

The seemingly endless budget and spending and sequestration noise coming out of D.C. can seem overwhelming and tedious. With sequestration threatening even the annual White House Easter egg roll, the budget rhetoric in D.C. remains heated and the gridlock seems complete. The President still hasn’t released a budget proposal for 2014 and now isn’t expected to until next month (despite my earlier prognostication). But for Congress, the budget process is marching on, and the tradeoff David described is getting set up right now.

Remember, the federal budget is intractably large (approximately 50 million times larger than the typical household budget) so it gets divided into smaller pieces. Budget allocations make up the first round of dividing up the federal budget. The Appropriations Committees (there’s one in the House and one in the Senate) are divided into subcommittees. Each subcommittee gets a slice of the budget, which they then allocate into final spending numbers for each department, office, and program within the federal government.

Each Appropriations subcommittee works with their slice of the budget, called (opaquely) their 302(b) sub-allocation. But here’s the important part: Once those sub-allocations are set, it’s a zero-sum game within that subcommittee; a dollar to one program must mean a dollar less for other programs. For scientists, the Commerce, Science, Justice and Related Agencies subcommittee is one of the big ones to watch. It determines the budget for the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). But it also sets the budget for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Commission on Civil Rights, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Marshal Service, and others. Once that’s set, any additional dollar that goes to NSF must come out of one of these other agency’s budgets. (The Washington Post reported today that the continuing resolution process to keep the government running the rest of this year is facing the same situation.)

This is how we get to the scenario David alluded to. Asking a member of Congress to support funding for science is implicitly asking them to trade away something else for that money, and those are neither simple nor easy decisions. Each thing that you might trade away has a constituency that cares deeply or even depends upon it… and that member of Congress? It’s their job to represent that constituency, too. While the budget is the focus of discussion now, these concepts apply to any issue that a policymaker faces.

When you talk to a member of Congress, make your case, give them the context they need to make their decision, and respect – even acknowledge – the tradeoffs they face. You’ll be more credible, you’ll be giving them more of what they need, and you’ll be on your way to becoming a trusted source of input.

Did you like this article? Share it out with your community.