APS News

Inside the Beltway

Will a Thaw Follow the Hard Freeze?

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

Late last fall, a hard freeze hit the heartland of America. The same could have been said for federal science budgets. Even as the last presidential ballots were being counted, science administrators were being warned to expect nothing more for FY 1998 than they had received the previous year. Adjustments for inflation were out of the question. Budgets for basic research would be frozen hard at FY 1997 levels across the federal government.

For some agencies, the news was extraordinarily good. The Department of Energy, for example, had been promised cuts of more than 25 percent over the next three years. For DOE's programs, a freeze at FY 1997 levels represented a victory beyond expectations. Knowledgeable sources attributed some of the success to the thousands of letters from scientists that flooded the White House in September and October.

For other agencies, including the National Science Foundation, the projection was disheartening. The NSF had lobbied hard to restore parity with the National Institutes of Health. During the last two years, NSF administrators had watched with some dismay as Congress boosted spending for NIH at annual rates approaching 7 percent. At the same time, appropriators kept NSF tightly in check, not even permitting the Foundation's budget to keep pace with increases in the cost of living.

Whatever the vantage point, the projections served as a reality check. Without containment of entitlements, the long-term prospects for all discretionary programs remains bleak. A few key figures serve to put this into perspective.

Thirty-five years ago, Washington spent barely one out of every three federal dollars on entitlements. Most of the money went for Social Security and child welfare benefits.

Today the burgeoning costs of Medicare, Medicaid and service on the national debt have forced the federal government to fence off two out of every three dollars it ultimately pays out. Spending on these programs is locked in by law. The remaining dollar, the only one that appropriators can tinker with, is now split almost equally between defense and civilian programs.

Unless the growth of entitlements is reined in, federal spending on all discretionary programs, from scientific research to crime prevention, will slowly wither away. In the near term, the only alternative is continued deficit spending. But in the long term, the consequence will be the same.

What, then, are the prospects for entitlement reform? At first blush, the possibilities seem remote. When the Republican majority in the 104th Congress incorporated constraints on Medicare and Medicaid spending into their balanced budget plans, they received a thorough thrashing at the hands of the Democrats.

The GOP had made a crucial political mistake. The savings they had proposed to extract from Medicare and Medicaid matched almost dollar for dollar the tax cut they had laid on the table simultaneously. For more than a year, the Democrats capitalized on the blunder. Medicare cuts for the poor to pay for tax cuts for the rich was the refrain heard over and over again.

And it paid off. President Clinton, whose popularity had sunk to unimaginable lows prior to the 1994 election, rebounded in 1996 and was re-elected with room to spare. But he failed to carry Congress with him. By the time the dust settled, the Republicans found themselves with a narrow twenty-vote margin in the House and a less-than-filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

The American electorate had sent both parties a message: We don't trust either of you to govern alone. But on the campaign trail, candidates in both political parties also heard another message: Cut out the partisan bickering and learn to work together!

And so as the 105th Congress convened and President Clinton took his oath of office for a second time, both sides promised to seek common ground. Almost immediately, the President offered up a Medicare-Medicaid proposal that met the Republicans more than half way. Many congressional Democrats viewed the move with some alarm. But Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, who has assumed the role of Republican honcho on the Hill in the aftermath of House Speaker Newt Gingrich's ethics problems, greeted the overture warmly.

How far into the congressional session bipartisan collegiality will extend is not clear, but for now both sides are talking deal. Case in point: A non-partisan commission may soon be established to deal with the thorny issue of Social Security reform. Even before that happens, however, a consensus may form around the Boskin committee's argument that the Consumer Price Index overstates cost of living increases by 1.1 percent annually. Every year, the federal government by statute must apply changes in the CPI to spending on entitlements. If the Boskin analysis is adopted, more than 1 trillion dollars will be wrung out of entitlement programs over the next decade. While such a change is not a panacea for all that ails the federal budget, it certainly is a move in the right direction.

There is another motivator for bipartisan action on the Hill. Members of Congress, above all else, are masters of practical politics. They know that without a bipartisan consensus, entitlement reform is impossible, and without such reform, the discretionary programs they use to build constituent support will slowly erode. Reining in entitlement spending is good public policy, but it is also good politics.

In the glow of expressions of bipartisan cooperation, science, which has been caught in the crossfire of political sniping for two years, may again emerge as the nonpartisan issue it ought to be. An early indicator is Senate Bill S. 124, The National Research Investment Act of 1997. The bill authorizes the federal government to double its investment in basic science and medical research over ten years.

A scant six months ago, such legislation, which argues for more broad-based federal spending, rather than less, might only have been imagined as emanating from the liberal Democratic caucus. The current bill, however, is sponsored by Texas Republican Senator Phil Gramm and is cosponsored by two of his conservative GOP colleagues, Senators Connie Mack of Florida and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas.

While authorizers do not wield the power of appropriators, who ultimately determine how much federal money will be spent and where it will go, the mere presence of Senate Bill S. 124 may presage a period of political cooperation in which American science will thrive once more. A thaw in the frozen budgets may yet be possible. What Members of Congress need to hear now are the voices of scientists applauding them on adopting such a course of action.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin