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Inside the Beltway

A Schizophrenic Congress Staggers Toward the November Elections

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

Even in times of relative tranquility, most federal policy making resonates with political overtones. But as elections grow near, the din of partisanship typically grows so loud that verbal outbursts become the accepted norm.

So far this year, behavior on the Hill has defied the usual pattern. It has been remarkably inconsistent and totally unpredictable. It has seesawed between the expected partisan jousting and some startling examples of collegial cooperation. Consider what has happened to science.

For virtually its entire life, the House Science Committee has maintained itself high above the fray of political battles. Its subject matter has been too dry for the partisan tastes of most members, and its clout on the Hill has been almost non-existent. But since the dawn of the 104th Congress, the Science Committee has found itself on a slippery slope that has finally plunged it headlong into a tumultuous sea of political rancor.

On April 24, the committee began its business of marking up the $19.7 billion omnibus science authorization bill, a piece of legislation that was guaranteed to pass into oblivion, since the Senate, as has been its practice, would almost certainly refuse to consider it. In spite of the futility of the exercise-or perhaps because of it-committee members hurled personal insults at each other for more than two hours as they prepared to consider the details of the bill.

As reported in the May 11 issue of Congressional Quarterly, Ranking Democrat George E. Brown, Jr. (D-CA) called Committee Chairman Robert S. Walker (R-PA) "the most autocratic, non-democratic chairman I have ever had the pleasure of working with." And when GOP members reprimanded Harold L. Volkmer (D-MO) for habitually violating the law by smoking in the hearing room, Democrats retorted that the complaint represented the totality of the Republican position on pollution. The latent hostility boiled over again several weeks later when the bill came up for consideration on the floor of the House.

In contrast with the highly charged partisan air of the Science Committee's debates, the House VA-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee, which is also responsible for funding the NSF, NASA and EPA, rolled out its spending plan at the end of June amidst a fanfare of pledges of bipartisan cooperation. Subcommittee Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-CA) and Ranking Democrat Louis Stokes (D-OH) applauded each other for their sensitivity to the needs of their respective constituencies. They said that they had worked together to produce a bill that had carefully balanced spending for housing, veterans' health care and the science and technology programs of NSF, NASA and EPA.

The committee leaders clearly had learned a lesson from the public outrage over last year's government shutdown. The VA-HUD bill, which last year was filled with riders that the Clinton Administration had found unacceptably odious, was absolutely clean this year. Lewis and Stokes had clearly done their homework.

But what happened when the bill reached the House floor is another matter. Member after member rose in support of more money for veterans. By the time all the dust had settled, the VA account had been enriched by a transfer of 0.4 percent from all other allocations. On top of that, it had received a $40 million bonus with money taken from President Clinton's cherished National Service Program. Transferring funds to the VA is not a partisan measure, since one election year maxim is never to say no to a veteran. But freshman Tod Tiahrt's (R-KS) amendment that authorized the $40 million bonus fell far outside the bipartisan boundary that Lewis and Stokes had so carefully drawn. Tiahrt's amendment also zeroed out all the remaining National Service funds, virtually guaranteeing a presidential veto.

The VA-HUD appropriations bill that ultimately passed the House by a 269 to 147 margin also treated the NSF rather shabbily, given the strong support for basic research that both Democrats and Republicans had been espousing for months. But for this treatment, the NSF was partially to blame. Before the bill hit the House floor, the agency had reported that the Research and Related Activities (R&RA) account was scheduled to increase a solid 4.6 percent. That much was true, but the NSF had neglected to say that the Facilities and Instrumentation line, which was $100 million in FY 1996, was now fully contained within R&RA. The research portion of the NSF budget that the House finally approved rose less than 0.7 percent. And more than half of that increase was attributable to the Walker amendment that transferred $9.1 million from administration and travel to R&RA. All this goes to prove another election year maxim: When budgets are lean, don't tell anyone you're getting fat, especially when it ain't true.

As Congress grappled with the FY 1997 Budget Resolution, scientists were reminded once again that they have a sincere friend in Senator Pete V. Domenici (R-NM). The chairman of the Senate Budget Committee proposed increasing domestic discretionary spending by $5 billion above the level approved by the House. Although he is a fiscal conservative, he argued that without the higher ceiling, critical programs such as scientific research, particularly those within DOE, would suffer considerable harm. With the urging of the APS and other constituent organizations, House-Senate conferees ultimately accepted a $4.1 billion increase. But it took some extraordinary arm twisting by the Republican leadership to sell the agreement to the House. Only after nasty internecine battles did they finally succeed.

So as the 104th Congress staggers toward the November finishing line, look for continuing evidence of schizophrenic behavior. It may be a legacy of the 1994 elections, and it may be with us for a long time to come.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin