APS News

Inside the Beltway: A Washington Analysis

Under the Gun

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

As the 106th Congress wrapped up its legislative business this fall, it found itself riding giant swells that made the waves in the Dow Jones average seem like gentle ripples on a summer pond. In July, even before Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr had launched his Lewinsky missile, forecasters were predicting a stormy fall season. The warning flags went up more than half a year ago, when Congress and the President set sail on separate courses that promised a collision over budgets and taxes.

With a surplus in federal revenues virtually assured for the first time in decades, the White House fenced off the anticipated black ink by declaring that it should be dedicated to the Social Security System, which will begin to run deficits in about twenty years as the baby boomers retire.

It was a savvy political move calculated to blunt the GOP's inevitable call for cuts in federal taxes, a core Republican issue that resonates especially well in an election year. But, arguably, the White House declaration was also fiscally sound, because without the current surplus in Social Security revenues, the federal budget would still be more than $30 billion in the red this year.

The President found a willing ally in Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-NM), who had been pounding out the same message long before the White House had discovered it. When the House of Representatives finally passed a Budget Resolution that called for more than $80 billion in tax cuts, Domenici excoriated his Republican colleagues in the other chamber for acting irresponsibly.

Just as tax cuts are the GOP's bread and butter in an election year, social programs are the Democrat's sustenance. To pay for them this time around, President Clinton included in his budget request last February a call for a tobacco tax, which health experts said would help reduce teen smoking dramatically.

But the tobacco industry launched a $50 million ad campaign, slamming the White House plan as nothing more than a ruse for more federal spending, at the expense of poor and middle class smokers. It was an overstatement. Yet the kernel of truth it contained was sufficient for the Senate to kill the tax plan before Congress broke for the July 4th recess.

With the tobacco revenue stream choked off and with the balanced budget caps still in place, Republicans began to strip away the President's featured programs - education, child care, housing and the environment. About the only White House initiative that survived was increased funding for science.

So different were the House and Senate budget plans, however, that by the time the August vacation came, not one appropriations bill had made it through conference for final vote. There was an added complication: President Clinton had threatened to veto seven of the thirteen bills, if Republicans hewed to their fiscal plans. The stage was being set for a September showdown.

The outcome was uncertain: a mammoth catch-all appropriations bill, a government shutdown or a continuing resolution that would fund federal agencies at last year's level or the lower of the current House and Senate appropriations bills. While smart money was on a mammoth appropriations bill, the only sure bet was that members of Congress would leave town on October 9, as scheduled, to return home for a final month of campaigning prior to the November elections.

But when the Lewinsky missile landed on the Hill, all bets were off. Partisanship took over, as Republicans seized the opportunity to extend their Senate margin to a filibuster-proof majority and deny the Democrats any chance of reclaiming control of the House. Their strategy, according to high-ranking GOP leaders, was to humiliate the President so badly that Democrats would not show up at the polls in November.

The legislative calendar stalled, and suddenly a continuing resolution loomed large. About all the Democrats could do was denounce the Republicans for running a do-nothing Congress. But the charge fell on deaf ears - until the House put the salacious Starr language on the Web and released the secret grand jury tapes to the media. Those acts provoked a major public backlash, according to polls conducted by both parties. Abruptly, congressional Republicans were under the gun to complete the calendar, or risk that the "do-nothing" label would stick.

During the final two weeks of the session, appropriations bills began to move swiftly through conference. With Democrats stung by the President's transgressions and Republicans reeling from their X-rated releases, both parties sought common ground. Science provided them with one glorious opportunity.

As Democratic House Deputy Whip Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) said, when she promised to endorse the Ehler's (R-MI) science policy report, "Thank God we can agree on something!" In the final days of the session, research programs in DOD (6.1 and 6.2), DOE, NSF and NASA all received their major increases, with strong bipartisan support. And the Frist-Rockefeller bill continued to pile up co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle.

About the only clouds on the horizon were concerns that the science community might now become complacent or cease speaking with a unified voice. Time will tell.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin