APS News

Inside the Beltway

Shifting Political Winds Open a Window of Opportunity for Science

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

It may seem absurd to suggest that Pat Buchanan's win in New Hampshire or Steve Forbes' victories in Delaware and Arizona could have anything to do with science policy in Washington, particularly since Bob Dole has practically wrapped up the Republican nomination for president. But Buchanan and Forbes' rejection of the balanced budget imperative, the centerpiece of 1995 GOP spending plan, and their emphasis on tax reform could have serious implications for future federal support of science. Let's take a closer look at the still unfolding story.

For more than a year, from November of 1994 until January of 1996, Washington was awash with the rhetoric of the Contract with America. That 10-point document, which the Republicans had ridden to victory in the last election, framed most of the legislative debate during the first session of the 104th Congress. Although three items ultimately passed both Houses and received the president's signature, the others did not. And when the session finally ended in December, the nation was left with much of its government shut down, largely as a result of the balanced-budget impasse between President Clinton and the Republican House freshmen. Throughout the year, that ardent group of representatives, elected on a tide of promised reform, had been the most unabashed supporters of the Contract with America.

By the time the second session opened at the beginning of January, however, with their confrontational approach suffering a battering in public opinion polls, the House freshmen, under great pressure from their more seasoned leadership, finally capitulated. Although the president had given considerable ground in agreeing to a seven-year balanced budget plan scored by the conservative economists in the Congressional Budget Office, Washington observers generally agreed that the White House had achieved a significant political victory. Privately, many Republicans acknowledged as much, as well.

Therefore, it was no accident that shortly after the president's State of the Union Address, with the government once again functioning, the GOP leadership decided on a month-long break in the congressional schedule to give House and Senate members time at home to repair the political damage they had suffered. Of course, Senate Majority Leader Dole also badly needed the recess to concentrate on his campaign for the presidential nomination.

By the time Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow in early February and withdrew to his burrow for six more weeks of winter, the Contract with American had vanished from the Washington scene, disappearing almost as rapidly as it had appeared a little more than a year earlier. And with it went almost all talk about a balanced budget agreement, although leaders of both political parties continue to pay it lip service when pressed.

Bob Dole did not get to be majority leader of the Senate without being extraordinarily sensitive to shifts in the political wind. So it is not surprising that he dropped all references to the Contract from his stump speech once he hit the hustings. It was an easy change for him to make, since he reportedly had not been much enamored of it from the time Newt Gingrich first unveiled it in 1994. But Dole has not been alone in ignoring the Contract. Every one of his primary rivals has too.

And what about balancing the budget? While Bob Dole continues to pledge his support for pursuing it, his two principal opponents, Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes, have shown little taste for it, and for good reason. Much of Buchanan's success in New Hampshire is directly traceable to his populist campaign theme of keeping jobs in at home, whatever the cost. With corporate America still shedding thousands of jobs each month, his message has hit a resonant chord with many workers throughout the country who feel continually threatened. For them, the existence of a federal deficit is not a defining issue.

For Steve Forbes, an unapologetic supporter of supply-side economics, balancing the budget simply is not a major factor either. Growing the economy is his prime focus. The federal deficit, he believes, will take care of itself in the long term. But on tax cuts Buchanan and Forbes come down on the same side as Dole. All three believe in large ones.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill will pay close attention to the results of the primary voting. And while Bob Dole almost unquestionably will be the GOP presidential nominee, the size of the Buchanan and Forbes voting blocs will force many Republicans to accommodate their positions. Therefore, on economic issues look for tax cutting to remain high on the Republican agenda. And look for balancing the federal budget to take a back seat, at least by comparison with where it was in 1995. Also look for President Clinton's priorities to differ only marginally from those of the GOP in this regard.

Where does this leave science? First, while the Republican Congress will continue to stress reduced federal spending, it will do so with much less balanced budget fervor that it did in 1995. Second, in this election year, Republicans and Democrats alike will reflect to former House Speaker Tip O'Neill's maxim, "All politics is local." In the last analysis, their votes will be dictated by the volume of the voices raised by their constituents. If federal programs will help the folks back home, members of Congress will support them. President Clinton's FY 1997 budget proposal has given science a good start.

With the political window of opportunity having been opened a bit, it is now up to the science community to carry the debate forward. As the recent experience with the NSF budget demonstrates, when scientists in large numbers raise their voices, Congress is prepared to listen. If they remain silent, as has been their general custom in the past, scientists will have no one to blame for the consequences but themselves.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin