APS News

Inside the Beltway

Will Science Funding Go Up in a Puff of Smoke?

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

You could have bet your last dollar on it and still have had a good night's sleep. When the White House hit on the idea of a tobacco tax to fund R&D and a spate of new social programs without breaking the budget caps established last year, you knew immediately that every politician worth reelecting would light up.

Here was a real winner: Hammer the merchants of death, save lives, win the hearts and minds of every non-smoking voter, especially those with children, and offer everyone a year-end bonus. And what a bonus it would be, with estimates ranging from $65 to $100 billion over five years.

So it was very perplexing when Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS), first out of the box, threw cold water on the idea of a tobacco tax settlement. But his lack of enthusiasm lasted less than a week, and in a 180-degree about face, he quickly promised that the issue would be thoroughly aired on the Senate floor.

Out of the Capitol woodwork came the proposals, and within a month, a tobacco bill became a virtual certainty, as members of Congress took turns twisting the dagger into the dying corpus of what had been one of the most potent lobbying machines the country has ever known.

But congressional enthusiasm for taxing tobacco did not extend to endorsing the President's proposals for using the anticipated new revenue. Seeking to differentiate themselves and gain a political advantage in a hotly-contested election year, Republicans quickly staked out their own ground. While Reaganites seized on tax cuts, neo-conservatives hyped debt reduction. But the leadership, ever mindful of the public opinion polls, suggested a different target - health care. That, you may recall, used to be a Democratic issue. No more!

In the Senate, Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-NM) advised his colleagues last month that the tobacco money should be fenced off to keep Medicare solvent. And Senator Connie Mack (R-FL), ever mindful of the Sunshine State's large geriatric community, pledged his support for biomedical research.

In the House, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer (R-TX) rolled out a package that would create new tax breaks for people who receive no health benefits from their employers, establish new tax incentives for small businesses to cover the health insurance costs of their employees and speed up the plan that will allow self-employed workers to claim a 100 percent deduction for the insurance costs. The Archer package would also provide several tax credits to stimulate biomedical research, including one that would allow pharmaceutical companies to take a credit for their clinical trial expenses at academic medical centers.

Don't bother looking for physics. It hasn't even made it onto the congressional tobacco radar screen. But the last chapter has not yet been written, because despite all the talk about how the cigarette taxes could be spent, legislators have agreed to separate the revenue bill from the spending bill.

Here's why. Astute GOP leaders know that the best way to rally support for a tobacco deal among tax-averse Republicans is to connect new taxes on a public health menace to improvements in health care and cures for disease. To talk about any other use for the revenue at the outset is guaranteed to lose votes. As unreliable as forecasts are, I'd place my money on a more flexible spending outcome.

The reason is simple. In this election year, Congress has already displayed a hearty appetite for asphalt and an unchecked thirst for water. Highway projects will devour about $200 billion over the next six years. And popular water projects, which go head-to-head with energy research in the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill, will suck up $1.3 billion more than the President has requested for Fiscal Year 1999, alone.

How all other discretionary spending will get shoe-horned into the narrow-width appropriations bills without the use of tobacco revenues is hard to see. But, for now, House and Senate budget formulators have both gone on record supporting serious increases for science and engineering research.

However, crunch time will eventually come, and once again scientists will have to get down into the muddy political trenches. Otherwise science funding will literally go up in a puff of smoke, as will any hope of permanent R&D tax credits and R&D assistance for small business.

One more cautionary note. Once Congress gets around to divvying up the tobacco spoils, expect them to do it with lightning speed. This is an election year, and every member wants to get home to campaign as soon and as often as possible.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin