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Inside the Beltway: A Washington Analysis

Watch out Science! Here Comes Campaign 2000!

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

Michael S. Lubell
Michael S. Lubell

It's not even September 1999, and the countdown has begun. Check out the headlines. Trouble in the Gore Campaign! Hillary Woos New York! Bush Dollars Stun Foes! Forbes Web Site A Hot Ticket!

Brace yourselves for Campaign 2000. Election Day might be fifteen months away, but the way the pols are acting and the way the media is hyping it, you'd think we would be casting our votes tomorrow. Whatever the outcome of the campaign, we're all likely to weary of it before it's over.

Already, however, science is feeling its effects: in the Cox Report, the presidential budget, the congressional spending plan, funding for the Spallation Neutron Source (SNS), the congressional high-tech summit and the information technology authorization bill. Election-year politics lurks behind each of these, some of it benign and some of it pernicious.

Consider first the Cox Report. Released in May, the bipartisan document contained stunning allegations of espionage and theft of nuclear secrets from Los Alamos and Livermore National Laboratories by agents of the Peoples Republic of China. Revelations or claptrap?

I asked a close family member, a former OSS and CIA agent, for his take. "It's been going on for years," he said, "from the start of the Manhattan Project. It's a clash of cultures: scientists believe in openness, and counterintelligence thinks spies are prowling everywhere. Every so often they catch somebody and tighten up security. A year passes, and it's back to normal. But you don't read much about it."

"So why the big hoopla over Wen Ho Lee and Peter Lee, two of the alleged spies?" I asked.

"Politics, my boy. Remember how it started. Illegal Chinese campaign contributions to the Democrats in the '96 election. That's what's driving it, election-year politics, starting a year early."

Politics or not, the Cox Report rapidly led to the Rudman Report, prepared by four members of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. The panel included, in addition to its chairman, Former Senator Warren B. Rudman, members Ann Z. Caracristi, a former Deputy Director of the National Security Agency, Sidney Drell, a former President of the American Physical Society, and Stephen Friedman, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Columbia University.

The Rudman Report pulled no punches, calling the Department of Energy "dysfunctional" and taking it to task for gross laxity in matters of national security. It called for setting up a semi-autonomous agency within the Department to run all aspects of the defense laboratories, directed by a new Under Secretary of Energy who would be subject to Senate confirmation.

The Rudman recommendation dovetailed nicely with a strikingly similar proposal that Senators Kyl (R-AZ), Domenici (R-NM) and Murkowski (R-AK) had already placed before Congress. No sober Washington denizen believes that was a coincidence. Quick to take credit for moving against Chinese espionage, the White House quietly distanced itself from Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, who initially argued vehemently against the plan, but finally came to terms with its inevitability.

The reorganization plan poses two vital problems for physics at the DOE. What happens to the unclassified research at the weapons laboratories that the Office of Science now supports? And what happens to communication across the boundaries between DOE's classified and unclassified activities? If you have the solutions, call Secretary Richardson.

Election-year politics has also ratcheted up the normally contentious debate over the Federal budget. Republicans claim that the White House began the assault last February, when the President released his spending proposals for Fiscal Year 2000.

With projections for a surplus in excess of $100 billion, the President, seeking to eviscerate GOP plans for a major tax cut, fenced off two thirds of it to save Social Security. His rationale was simple: Social Security was generating the excess revenues today, and those revenues should be used to postpone the day of reckoning thirty years hence when outflows are expected to exceed collections.

To provide added funding for education, health care and defense, the President proposed using the remainder of the Social Security surplus and about $50 billion in revenues from a new tobacco tax, reflecting his stillborn formula from a year earlier. Characterizing his balanced budget plan as literally nothing more than smoke and mirrors, congressional Republicans unveiled their own spending plan in April. Theirs dedicated the entire surplus to saving Social Security, added almost $20 billion to defense and still managed to keep the balanced budget caps in place. But it required almost $40 billion in cuts to civilian discretionary programs. From the day the GOP plan hit the Hill, you could almost see the opposition salivating. It's one thing to talk about cutting spending; it's quite another to finger the programs that will absorb the cuts. Score one for the Democrats.

With a narrow margin of six votes to play with on the floor of each House, Republican appropriators quickly found themselves hemorrhaging politically. Their eyes set on the 2000 election, Democrats predictably have not rushed in with offers of a transfusion.

So the budget sits, waiting for a bipartisan bailout. Some analysts believe it will happen behind closed doors in September. Others predict that the "true believers" in the Republican Party will prevail and force their leadership to hack away at popular programs.

While the future is clouded, the strategy for physicists is clear. The final days of August and the opening days of September provide a window of opportunity to get a strong science message across to legislators in their home offices during the congressional summer recess. That may be difference between ten-percent cuts and modest increases for research and education.

There are some indications that Congress will pay attention. Take the case of the House Science Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI). During a rather messy mark-up of the Energy Authorization Bill, he retreated from his promise to slash SNS funding under strong pressure from his GOP colleagues, among them Vern Ehlers (R-MI), who argued that American neutron science would suffer tremendous harm. Democrats joined in, questioning behind the scenes, whether the chairman's opposition had been politically motivated, since the SNS is to be located in the Vice President's home state of Tennessee.

This June's high-tech summit is another prime example of the impact of R&D on the political gestalt. Although critics charged that it was nothing more than a blatant grab by campaign fundraisers for Silicon Valley money, the event, which drew leading information technology (IT) CEOs from around the country, received top Capitol Hill billing. It was timed to coincide with an authorization bill that would double the investment in IT research over five years. Ironically, Chairman Sensenbrenner, a staunch opponent of the Frist-Rockefeller R&D doubling bill (S. 296), was the leading advocate of the IT bill.

Sure it smells of election-year politics, but that's to be expected. Think back five years, when no part of R&D was on the political radar screen. With today's booming economy driven by science and technology, politicians are beginning to wake up. It's up to the practitioners and the economists to keep reminding them of the realities. They are, after all, a pretty savvy bunch.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette