APS News

Inside the Beltway

Death, Taxes and Much More

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

It's often claimed that the only certainties in life are death and taxes. Much the same can be said for politics. Let's first take a look at death.

To see how intimations of mortality affect Members of Congress, you need only consider the appropriations bills for the National Institutes of Health. For each of the last two years NIH has been the big R&D winner on the Hill. Having a champion like Labor-HHS House Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Porter (R-SC) doesn't hurt, but selling seven percent increases for biomedical research meets with far less resistance from a frugal Congress than mere cost of living increases for quantum optics.

Don't expect the new 105th Congress to behave any differently than the old 104th. Rep. Porter has been reelected subcommittee chair, and the attitudes of his mortal House colleagues toward the life sciences are not likely to change.

And what about taxes? With election-year politicking rapidly receding into the forgotten past, you can barely hear a whisper anywhere in Washington these days about the across-the-board cuts Bob Dole was advocating during the presidential campaign. Even House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer (R-TX), one of the most outspoken of the IRS abolitionists, has muted his tones that seemed to resonate so well in the corridors of power barely a year ago.

If death and taxes aren't up for grabs this year, what issues will be on the front burner in the 105th Congress, and how partisan will the debate be? To begin with, since both political parties now accept a balanced budget end game as inevitable, the squeeze on discretionary spending will almost certainly continue unabated during the next fiscal year. But as Members are forced to make hard choices on cuts in popular programs, look for many of them to take political cover by lining up in favor of a bipartisanship on entitlement reform. Whether they can move fast enough to relieve much pressure on the FY 1998 budget, however, is far from certain, particularly since the President was so politically successful in attacking Republicans for proposing Acuts@ to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Still, the process of finding ways to constrain these programs will almost certainly begin during the first few months of the next session.

In the House, the prospects for bipartisanship are relatively good. Although publicly, many Republicans continue to express satisfaction that they successfully maintained control of the chamber, most are well aware that their governing majority is razor thin. Only five times during the last century has the majority party in the House had a narrower percentage advantage.

House Republican leaders also know that had a few thousand votes swung the other way in a dozen races around the country, they would have lost their majority status entirely. Chastened by these realities, Newt Gingrich (R-GA), who ran unopposed for Speaker within the Republican ranks, issued a call for cooperation with the Democrats almost immediately after the House results were known. He was joined in this appeal by the rest of the returning Republican leadership.

The Democrats, for their part, made a significant move toward the center, as well, when they chose seven-term conservative John M. Spratt, Jr. (D-SC) over liberal Louise Slaughter (D-NY) as ranking member of the Budget Committee. The Democratic tilt toward the center was also evidenced by the party's decision to award another conservative, Charles W. Stenholm (D-TX), the ranking position on the Agriculture Committee.

All this potentially bodes well for science, which for the last two years was an unwitting victim to the partisan wrangling that characterized what passed for debate in the 104th Congress.

The House leadership will feature a few new faces in the 105th Congress, as well as many old ones. Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich (R-OH) and Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston (R-LA) both will be returning, as will be Appropriations Subcommittee Chairmen Jerry Lewis (R-CA) for VA, HUD and Independent Agencies (including NSF, NASA and EPA), Harold Rogers (R-KY) for Commerce, Justice, State and Judiciary and Bill Young (R-SC) for National Security.

Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), a low-key conservative who was Space and Aeronautics Science Subcommittee Chairman in the 104th Congress, will assume the chairmanship of the full Science Committee in the 105th. He will be filling the shoes of the demonstrative and often contentious Robert S. Walker of Pennsylvania, who was a staunch proponent of basic research and an equally staunch critic of the Clinton Administration's technology programs. Walker retired last year after twenty years of service, much of it within the rarified circles of the GOP leadership.

Joseph M. McDade (R-PA), passed over for Appropriations Committee chairman last time around while the subject of a federal bribary investigation, a charge of which he was finally acquitted last summer, again lost out to Bob Livingston for the powerful, coveted position. Instead, McDade will take over control of the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, replacing another retiree, John R. Myers of Indiana. How physics will fare in the House this year will depend heavily on the actions of McDade and Sensenbrenner.

In the 104th Congress, the Senate, under the leadership of Majority Leader Bob Dole, was the more conciliatory of the two legislative bodies. In the 105th Congress, the tables are likely to be turned. As much as the new House is tilting toward the center, the new Senate will be listing toward the right. Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) will have his hands full with eight new Republican Members, whose views are dramatically more conservative than those of the Republicans and Democrats whom they are replacing.

Lott and Senate energy czar Pete V. Domenici (R-NM) undoubtedly will be faced with renewed calls for abolishing the DOE, led by freshman Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS), who as a member of the House in the 104th Congress, spearheaded the drive to close down four federal cabinet-level agencies. Look for Domenici to offer a compromise: Eliminate DOE as a cabinet-level department and reconstitute it as an energy administration with a technologically trained director. Not a bad idea, huh? And if they called it the Energy Research and Development Administration, they could save taxpayers the cost of printing new stationery, assuming the old stuff is still around and hasn't turned too yellow. It should be an interesting year.


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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin