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Inside the Beltway: A Washington Analysis

Y2K Forecasting Takes Guts

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

Futurism is millennium chic. Far-off auguries are pretty safe bets for soothsayers. They'll either be dead or long-forgotten by the time any of their prophesies are put to the test.

Forecasting Y2K events inside the Beltway bears a much higher risk. Barring an apocalypse, diviners will be around to suffer the truth and will be held accountable for their rash predictions. Still, I can't resist the challenge.

The first year of the new millennium - or, for the purists, the last year of the current one - will be a souped-up version of 1999. The lame-duck presidency will seem even lamer. And the slim Republican majority in the House of Representatives will seem even more anorexic.

At the crack of the starter's gun, all competitors will be off for the November 7 finish line. The race will be a 100-day sprint with partisan elbows flying.

Don't look for any big-issues like health care reform, Social Security, gun control, or campaign financing to get on track. About the only lane open will be the FY 2001 budget. And even there, one hurdle looms large. Appropriators will start off $11.4 billion in the hole.

The IOU comes from clever accounting in the FY 2000 spending plan that allowed both parties to assert that they had not broken the budget caps, even though the Congressional Budget Office and the Office of Management and Budget said they had. Here are some of the big-ticket items that saw their fiscal year reassigned: civilian and military pay date shift ($4.1 billion), Federal Reserve System accelerated payments ($3.8 billion), defense contractors delayed payments ($1.3 billion) and NIH deferred payments ($0.8 billion).

The odds are that Congress will repeat the same kind of creative budgeting this year and that the President will go along with the charade. Both parties will dash to the tape as fast as they can to get out of town before the public picks up a whiff of the chicanery. They'll leave the budget mess for the next President and Congress to clean up.

How will science budgets fare in this scenario? Probably for most agencies the numbers will show consistent increases - so long as members of Congress hear from their constituents.

The one exception could be the Department of Energy, which will come under heavy fire from Capitol Hill critics on both sides of the aisle, who claim that Secretary Richardson thwarted the will of Congress when he took on the added role of the interim Undersecretary of the new National Nuclear Security Agency. Whether the DOE research budget comes up short as a result, will depend on how well the APS and others lobby Congress on the Department's gem - the Office of Science.

Here are two more DOE predictions: House Science Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) will still have the Spallation Neutron Source in his gun sight, and Stockpile Stewardship Program skeptics will take aim at the National Ignition Facility over allegations of mismanagement, technical short-comings and cost overruns.

As for Congress after the November die is cast, the odds favor Democrats recovering the House. Republicans who are stepping down from their seats in competitive districts outnumber Democrats by better than a 2 to 1 margin. And generic party-preference polls show Republicans lagging their counterparts by more than 8 points.

Regardless of the outcome, committee chairmanships are going to change. NIH advocate John Porter (R-IL) and DOE promoter Ron Packard (R-CA), are retiring. And should the GOP win,

Republican leaders have said that all committee chairs will step down for new blood. Of course, new blood, could still mean old members, if committees simply swap chairs. Still, the impending shake-up will produce more pork in FY 2001 appropriations, as departing leaders exercise their prerogatives for the last time.

By contrast, the Senate will remain relatively stable. Each party has a few vulnerable seats, but neither one will make inroads large enough to change the Senate dynamics. That means the Democrats will remain in the minority, but the Republicans will fall short of a filibuster-proof majority of 60. For the Senate in Y2K, it means business as usual.

As for the White House, 1999 was a near-record setting year. On issues on which he had staked out a clear position, President Clinton succeeded in a mere 37.8 percent of the votes, the second lowest rate racked up since the political analysis journal Congressional Quarterly began its tabulation 47 years ago. It was just 1.6 percent higher than the record low this President had set in 1995, in the immediate aftermath of the Republican revolution.

Don't look for Y2K to be very different. For all his charisma and intellect, President Clinton has displayed little interest in building bridges to Congress. Much of that stems from the triangulation strategy developed by former presidential advisor Dick Morris after the 1994 Democratic debacle. Morris had argued that to win a second term in 1996, the President had to portray himself as the third alternative to the two-party ideologies that govern congressional debate.

The strategy paid off in the election, but it did little for the President's reputation on the Hill. Still, watch for Congress and the White House to rally around science with calls for a balanced portfolio and increased investment in research as the underpinning of the American economy.

If I'm wrong, remember that it takes more guts to do this than to be a futurist.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette