APS News

Inside the Beltway

Political Chaos And Uncertainty Prod Scientists Into Action

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

Like an "Indy 500" race car that has blown a gasket, the 104th Congress, which had peeled away from the starting line scarcely a year earlier, barely limped into its Christmas recess, many laps away from the checkered flag. The session that had begun amidst great euphoria in the House of Representatives, where the new Republican majority had rapidly passed all but one item in the Contract with America, ended officially on a distinctly sour note this past January 3, with much of the federal government still shut down for lack of money and many science agencies facing an uncertain future. Within weeks, rumblings of an impending research crisis began to emanate from Washington, and scientists across the country began to mobilize.

Months earlier, the Senate and, subsequently, an uncharacteristically stubborn President Clinton had set up road blocks that eventually proved insurmountable for the finely honed House machine. By the time the spending bills needed to keep the government running began to appear on the President's desk, well into the start of the new fiscal year, polls were showing that a majority of Americans had become wary of the pace of change promoted by the new Congress. Emboldened, President Clinton uncapped his veto pen and exercised his constitutional prerogative.

Without the authority to spend money, the agencies covered by the vetoed bills would have to cease operation. But this was not a unique moment in American history. The federal government had faced a similar situation many times before, and in virtually every instance, Congress and the President had agreed to a Continuing Resolution to maintain activities temporarily, usually at the previous year's level. But the Republican budget for FY 1996 was different in one critical respect: it eliminated or substantially reduced many existing programs.

The government was also running up against the debt ceiling. Unless Congress approved an increase, the country would be unable to meet its obligations. Again, this was not a unique occurrence. But, in the past, during the four decades that the Democrats had controlled the House, Republicans had grown accustomed to voting against such measures almost reflexively. Their nay votes were popular back home, and they were loathe to abandon the tradition.

As they had throughout the year, the House Republican freshmen became the catalysts for action. And while Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-KS) and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) reportedly expressed misgivings privately, the Republican leadership eventually bowed to the freshmen's high-risk response to President Clinton's intransigence. Although default on the federal debt was fraught with long-term perils, and temporarily shutting down government agencies would cause short-term inconvenience, the President, to keep operations normal, would have to sign the Reconciliation Bill that contained the seven-year Republican blueprint.

But during the summer and early fall, the Democrats had studiously laid the ground work for a counterattack. They had taken every opportunity to label the Republican plans for Medicare and Medicaid as radical cuts in programs that benefit the middle class and the poor. Regardless of its merit, the public accepted the claim, and President Clinton gained the upper hand.

He vetoed the Reconciliation Bill, and to deal with default, he had Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin adopt creative financing measures that could keep the country afloat for three or four months. Their debt ceiling strategy thus stymied, the Republicans, who fundamentally did not trust the President to negotiate faithfully, made good on their threat to shut the government down. By the time Christmas week arrived, national parks and passport offices were closed, as were agencies such as NSF, NASA and NIH.

Amidst the chaos, Congress left town. But before they did, the Republican House freshmen vowed that they would return to complete their unfinished business, so sure were they that their strategy would work. Many in the Republican leadership, including House Speaker Gingrich, were far less certain.

The three-week hiatus proved sobering, at least for the leadership: the public had come down clearly on the side of the President. The GOP strategy had failed. Yet White House jubilation was muted. Strategists there believed that the President would also begin to suffer serious rebuke, if the impasse lasted much longer.

The stage was thus set for a compromise. But first, the Speaker had to convince the freshmen. Otherwise he would have had to rely on a bipartisan coalition involving moderates from both sides, a true gamble, because both parties were badly fractured. It was far from clear that the requisite 217 votes could be assembled, even if he and the President both twisted arms. And, if the strategy failed, both of them would lose big time.

On a morning in early January, Newt Gingrich met with the Republican caucus and in a stormy session laid down the law. Although there were 18 defections, the Speaker carried the day. The President, for his part, agreed to a seven-year balanced budget plan.

The government reopened, and some targeted programs received full-year appropriations, NIH among them. But NSF, NASA and NIST did not. The agency's plight, NSF Director Neal Lane warned, was headed toward criticality.

On Saturday, January 20, the APS swung into action, issuing an electronic alert to 26,000 members. Within five days, more than 2,000 letters and phone calls reached the Hill. The APS initiative spawned similar activities by other science societies, and today estimates of calls and letters run as high as 10,000. The result: a bipartisan initiative spearheaded by Rep. Vern J. Ehlers (R-MI and APS Fellow) to give full-year funding to NSF, an agency that had received support in every quarter at every turn, but had fallen innocent victim to the chaos that has marked the 104th Congress. by Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

Like an "Indy 500" race car that has blown a gasket, the 104th Congress, which had peeled away from the starting line scarcely a year earlier, barely limped into its Christmas recess, many laps away from the checkered flag. The session that had begun amidst great euphoria in the House of Representatives, where the new Republican majority had rapidly passed all but one item in the Contract with America, ended officially on a distinctly sour note this past January 3, with much of the federal government still shut down for lack of money and many science agencies facing an uncertain future. Within weeks, rumblings of an impending research crisis began to emanate from Washington, and scientists across the country began to mobilize.

Months earlier, the Senate and, subsequently, an uncharacteristically stubborn President Clinton had set up road blocks that eventually proved insurmountable for the finely honed House machine. By the time the spending bills needed to keep the government running began to appear on the President's desk, well into the start of the new fiscal year, polls were showing that a majority of Americans had become wary of the pace of change promoted by the new Congress. Emboldened, President Clinton uncapped his veto pen and exercised his constitutional prerogative.

Without the authority to spend money, the agencies covered by the vetoed bills would have to cease operation. But this was not a unique moment in American history. The federal government had faced a similar situation many times before, and in virtually every instance, Congress and the President had agreed to a Continuing Resolution to maintain activities temporarily, usually at the previous year's level. But the Republican budget for FY 1996 was different in one critical respect: it eliminated or substantially reduced many existing programs.

The government was also running up against the debt ceiling. Unless Congress approved an increase, the country would be unable to meet its obligations. Again, this was not a unique occurrence. But, in the past, during the four decades that the Democrats had controlled the House, Republicans had grown accustomed to voting against such measures almost reflexively. Their nay votes were popular back home, and they were loathe to abandon the tradition.

As they had throughout the year, the House Republican freshmen became the catalysts for action. And while Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-KS) and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) reportedly expressed misgivings privately, the Republican leadership eventually bowed to the freshmen's high-risk response to President Clinton's intransigence. Although default on the federal debt was fraught with long-term perils, and temporarily shutting down government agencies would cause short-term inconvenience, the President, to keep operations normal, would have to sign the Reconciliation Bill that contained the seven-year Republican blueprint.

But during the summer and early fall, the Democrats had studiously laid the ground work for a counterattack. They had taken every opportunity to label the Republican plans for Medicare and Medicaid as radical cuts in programs that benefit the middle class and the poor. Regardless of its merit, the public accepted the claim, and President Clinton gained the upper hand.

He vetoed the Reconciliation Bill, and to deal with default, he had Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin adopt creative financing measures that could keep the country afloat for three or four months. Their debt ceiling strategy thus stymied, the Republicans, who fundamentally did not trust the President to negotiate faithfully, made good on their threat to shut the government down. By the time Christmas week arrived, national parks and passport offices were closed, as were agencies such as NSF, NASA and NIH.

Amidst the chaos, Congress left town. But before they did, the Republican House freshmen vowed that they would return to complete their unfinished business, so sure were they that their strategy would work. Many in the Republican leadership, including House Speaker Gingrich, were far less certain.

The three-week hiatus proved sobering, at least for the leadership: the public had come down clearly on the side of the President. The GOP strategy had failed. Yet White House jubilation was muted. Strategists there believed that the President would also begin to suffer serious rebuke, if the impasse lasted much longer.

The stage was thus set for a compromise. But first, the Speaker had to convince the freshmen. Otherwise he would have had to rely on a bipartisan coalition involving moderates from both sides, a true gamble, because both parties were badly fractured. It was far from clear that the requisite 217 votes could be assembled, even if he and the President both twisted arms. And, if the strategy failed, both of them would lose big time.

On a morning in early January, Newt Gingrich met with the Republican caucus and in a stormy session laid down the law. Although there were 18 defections, the Speaker carried the day. The President, for his part, agreed to a seven-year balanced budget plan.

The government reopened, and some targeted programs received full-year appropriations, NIH among them. But NSF, NASA and NIST did not. The agency's plight, NSF Director Neal Lane warned, was headed toward criticality.

On Saturday, January 20, the APS swung into action, issuing an electronic alert to 26,000 members. Within five days, more than 2,000 letters and phone calls reached the Hill. The APS initiative spawned similar activities by other science societies, and today estimates of calls and letters run as high as 10,000. The result: a bipartisan initiative spearheaded by Rep. Vern J. Ehlers (R-MI and APS Fellow) to give full-year funding to NSF, an agency that had received support in every quarter at every turn, but had fallen innocent victim to the chaos that has marked the 104th Congress.


©1995 - 2016, AMERICAN PHYSICAL SOCIETY
APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Barrett H. Ripin