APS News

Inside the Beltway

Getting Priorities Right

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

Imagine American politics without partisan wrangling. It seems preposterous. Yet, for much of the first session of the 105th Congress, that's how the House and Senate functioned. Well, almost, anyway.

A principal fault line eventually developed over campaign finance reform, with Democrats-who are consistently outspent by Republicans-arguing for spending limits, and Republicans-who were especially targeted by organized labor in 1996-arguing for restrictions on how union dues may be spent. Legislative action in the Senate came to a grinding halt several times in the fall, as both sides filibustered and Democrats threatened repeatedly to attach campaign reform legislation to extraneous bills.

But with neither party willing to risk public ire over a government shutdown, the appropriations bills for the most part escaped unscathed. And those bills generally carried good news for science.

After four years of cuts, Congress seemed genuinely persuaded by the logic behind "The 7 Percent Solution" and provided research programs in many federal agencies with increases that ranged between 3 and 8 percent. One of the few exceptions was the Defense Department's 6.1 Program, which came under the scalpel when Appropriations Committee conferees tilted toward the House version of the bill and left DOD basic research frozen at fiscal year 1997 levels to accomodate B2 bombers and personnel infrastructure. By contrast, they gave the DOD applied research 6.2 Program a hefty 8.9 percent increase.

But the big news on Capitol Hill this fall was the bipartisan Senate Bill S. 1305, "The National Research Investment Act of 1998." The original version of that legislation, which Senator Phil Gramm (R-Texas) drafted last January, had only Republican co-sponsors, leading some critics to argue that it represented nothing more than a grandstanding play.

Gramm, who holds a Ph.D. in economics and a bachelor's degree in physics, vehemently denied the accusation and promised to withdraw his bill and submit a substitute that had bipartisan co-sponsorship.

For much of the summer, his staff worked closely with Senator Joseph Lieberman's (D-Conn.) office to develop language that was acceptable to both senators. With the assistance of some members of the scientific community, including APS President D. Allan Bromley, they achieved a breakthrough in early September.

The result was an authorization bill that would double the federal investment in civilian basic scientific, medical and pre-competitive engineering research over the next decade. In its thrust, the bill was consistent with the general goals of the "Unified Statement-A Decade of Investment" that the leaders of 106 science, engineering and mathematics societies had just endorsed, on behalf of more than 3 million researchers and educators.

On Wednesday, October 22, Gramm and Lieberman, accompanied by more than 35 society leaders, held a joint press conference in the Mansfield Room of the Capitol to unveil the bill and the statement.

But Washington is a town that leaks like a sieve. So, for the cognoscente, neither the bill nor the statement contained any surprises. However, the press conference was anything but anti-climactic. As Bromley, American Chemical Society Past-President Ron Breslow and American Society of Mechanical Engineers President-Elect Winfred Phillips all noted, the event was seminal. Never before had the leaders of professional societies representing the majority of the nation's scientists, engineers and mathematicians joined in such a public statement of concern for the future of the American science and technology.

And in their prepared remarks, Gramm and Lieberman both made it clear that they were dead serious about having Congress pass S. 1035, putting to rest all speculation that the legislation was merely a posturing exercise. Gramm pledged that they would have 51 co-sponsors signed on before the bill is taken up by the Labor and Human Resources Committee next spring.

But what really caused a buzz in the packed room was the unexpected presence of Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.). The powerful New Mexico legislator, who also chairs the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, had decided to become an original co-sponsor of the bill only hours before. And his fellow New Mexican, Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), also a strong supporter of science, joined as well.

Domenici, well known for his strong support of science, echoed Gramm's sentiments when he stated it was important for Congress to get its priorities right for the future. And those priorities, he asserted, were laid out in "The National Research Investment Act of 1998."

Unfortunately, reports received from the White House only a few days before the Capitol Hill press conference took place suggested that President Clinton was not fully comfortable with the legislation. As one senior official put it, "Those numbers are wildly out of line with our present thinking."

White House thinking, according to other sources, is a freeze at fiscal year 1998 levels for at least the next several years. Readers may recall, however, that last year the White House floated similar budget plans in October. But by February, when the President delivered his budget message to Congress, his proposals included modest increases for R&D investments.

The change in President Clinton's attitude occurred, at least in part, because the science community had taken the trouble to speak out. With a congressional initiative in the making and with more than 3 million scientists, engineers and mathematicians flexing their collective muscles, White House watchers are betting that the President once again will turn his positive rhetoric on science into budgetary action.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin