APS News

Inside the Beltway

"Paralytic Federalitis" grips the current Administration and Congress

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

Science finally made it onto the Washington radar screen, only to find the airport all but shut down. Congress has been in a monumental funk since it convened almost four months ago. And at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, where the Lincoln Bedroom has remained largely vacant for the first time in two years, a bunker mentality seems to prevail. These days only Wendy's is offering up any beef, and inside the Beltway, Hale-Bopp has a monopoly on the vision thing.

Call it "paralytic federalitis": it has its genesis in deviant fundraising practices and deep fiscal phobias, and it has spread through Washington like a contagious disease, affecting leaders in both political parties in the process.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was hit with a stern reprimand and a $300,000 penalty by the House Ethics Committee in January, has all but vanished from the congressional scene, leading some vocal critics in his own party to call for his resignation. But so far the House Republican leadership has presented a united front in his defense, and no one with serious credentials has stepped forward to replace him.

President Clinton, who has made a career of rebounding from certain defeat, is facing the prospects of yet another resurrection, one that may make the physical therapy for his torn tendon seem like a trivial matter. It is not yet clear whether the Administration broke any laws in its zeal to raise money for the 1996 campaign, but the fallout from the accusations and the perceptions of improprieties have tied up the White House in political knots since the inauguration.

Even Vice President Al Gore and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott have seen the luster of their squeaky clean images sullied somewhat. The Vice President, for whom the title "Mr. Straight Arrow" used to be regarded as an understatement, has been preoccupied defending the use of his office telephone for political fundraising, a practice that former White House counsel Abner Mikva warned was illegal.

And Mr. Lott, for whom charm, comity and respect are guiding principles, had his perfectly coifed feathers ruffled a bit in mid-March when Republicans rebelled against a deal he had brokered within the GOP conference to keep the Senate investigations of campaign fundraising focused on the White House. When the proposed legislation hit the Senate floor, Joseph I. Lieberman (D-CT) offered an amendment to broaden the investigating committee's mandate. And much to the pleasure of committee chairman Fred Thompson (R-TN) and the dismay of Mr. Lott, the Senate ultimately voted 99 to 0 to accept the Lieberman amendment.

While Congress stewed over investigations, budget issues languished. When President Clinton submitted his requests on February 6, he asserted that his plan would result in budgetary balance in 2002. Rather than risk the kind of confrontation with the White House that had resulted in a shutdown of the government in 1995, the Republicans decided to use the President's budget as a starting point for negotiations, rather than produce their own plan.

Thus, although GOP criticism was immediate, the rhetoric was muted, and preliminary discussions with the White House took place several weeks later. But plans for further talks were put on hold when the Congressional Budget Office declared the President's spending plan $69 billion out of balance in 2002. Mr. Clinton, the Republicans said, should resubmit a truly balanced budget.

Sensing a possible stalemate and remembering how the GOP had been damaged politically in 1995, Speaker Gingrich, then proposed that both sides forego discussions of tax cuts until they had arrived at a consensus on spending. Immediately, House Republicans screamed "Sellout!" leading Gingrich to reverse course promptly. However, former Senator Sam Nunn, a conservative Democrat from Georgia who is widely respected on both sides of the aisle, had these words of caution for the Speaker's critics. Reflecting on the GOP strategy that had misfired two years ago when tax and budget cuts became linked, he said, "What the Republicans offered then was a soft slow pitch over the plate, and the Democrats demagogued it right out of the park."

Whether or not a budget deal can be struck, Congress will soon have to get on with the business of passing appropriations bills for the coming year. And right now the science signals are fairly good. For openers, the President's budget, instead of cutting or freezing science spending, as first promised, would generally provide small increases. The policy shift, according to Presidential Science Advisor Jack Gibbons, was largely due to the political activity of the science community. (Physicists take note!)

On the Hill, the voices of scientists have also been heard. Phil Gramm (R-TX) and several Senate colleagues submitted legislation that would double the research budget in 10 years. And George Brown (D-CA), former chairman of the House Science Committee, released a balanced budget plan that would increase research spending at a rate of five percent per year.

Reinforcing the science message, the presidents of societies representing more than a million engineers, mathematicians and scientists signed a joint statement in March advocating increases for research in the range of seven percent. The unprecedented show of unity seemed to have an immediate effect. House Science Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), who only weeks earlier had said that a freeze was inevitable, agreed to support increases in the range of three percent.

But the story is far from over. Appropriators will still have the final word. Before then, of course, scientists will have one more chance to make their case.


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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin