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Inside the Beltway: A Washington Analysis

Congressional Science Budget: Still Time for Last-Minute Action

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

"Alabama casts twenty-four votes for Underwood!" That's how the roll call began at the Democratic National Convention. The year was 1924, and Senator Oscar W. Underwood was Alabama's favorite son. For 102 ballots, the convention remained deadlocked, until John W. Davis of West Virginia emerged as the compromise candidate. Several months later, Davis went down to a resounding defeat at the hands of Calvin Coolidge.

Those were the days was when conventions meant something, when the results were in doubt, and families listened raptly to the radio to find out whom the parties would select as their standard bearers.

Today, the presidential candidates are chosen months before the conventions, making the quadrennial extravaganzas little more than infomercials, carefully crafted to set the stage for the upcoming elections. The same can be said for most of the activity in Washington in a presidential election year. Campaign politics and posturing swamp any wisp of policy making.

Consider what's been happening this year. High on the issues list for Harry and Louise, according to recent polls, are education, Social Security and Medicare. But the odds are nil that Congress and the White House will deal substantively with any of them.

Instead, both political parties are pressing their separate versions of a "Patient's Bill of Rights" and prescription drug reform, with little hope of agreement. And both are hyping tax cuts and defense spending, with Democrats arguing for smaller changes and Republicans pushing for bigger ones.

These are some of the wedge issues, which each party is seeking to turn to its own electoral benefit. And with both houses of Congress now up for grabs, each party is pursuing even the smallest potential advantage.

On such a political landscape, it's no surprise that science has slipped below the horizon. The good news, so far on Capitol Hill, is that neither party is gunning for it. The bad news is that neither party is touting it.

The budget process began last February with great expectations for science. The President submitted a request that featured major increases for myriad research programs, most prominently, a boost of nearly 20% for NSF and 30% for DOE's Basic Energy Sciences.

But within days, congressional budgeteers sent out storm warnings. The President, they noted, by requesting more than $622 billion for discretionary, was breaking the budget cap of $573 billion set in 1997. Unacceptable, irresponsible and illegal, they said.

By the time the Budget Resolutions cleared both Houses in April, Congress had pared the spending plan back to slightly less than $605 billion, still above the cap, but who's to notice.

Appropriators in both houses were steaming. During the process, Senate Chairman Ted Stevens (R-AK) and House Chairman Bill Young (R-FL) had warned the Budget Committees that they would have trouble writing bills with such a constraint. To no avail.

With the economy booming, polls consistently showed that the public had little appetite for cutting spending, if it meant giving up program favorites. What to do?

Still smarting from last year's budget showdown with the White House, Republican leaders vowed to get as many of the thirteen spending bills signed into law as they could. Early on, they targeted Defense, Military Construction, Agriculture, Interior, Transportation and the Legislative Branch.

To assure passage, without risking a presidential veto, they boosted their allocations by shortchanging Labor-HHS, which includes NIH, and VA-HUD, which includes NSF, NASA. Science was caught in an allocation squeeze.

When Congress passes Labor-HHS and VA-HUD, it will be largely along party lines. However, off the record, Republican appropriators say they hope that the President will veto both bills. They want money added, but only in the final negotiations, to minimize heat from the far right. They will probably get their wish.

The Energy and Water Bill, which funds most of DOE, is another matter. The budget for Office of Science is in deep trouble. But DOE's stock on Capitol Hill is so low, that Democratic leaders reportedly told the White House to expect an override, if he wields his veto pen. Therefore, no matter how bad the bill looks, the President will swallow hard and sign.

With that prospect, the end game for DOE is the House-Senate conference, scheduled for early September, where differences over spending for defense programs and water projects will be resolved. The inside word is that GOP leaders will add enough money to get agreement. If they heed Senate Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Pete V. Domenici's (R-NM) pleas, they could include funds to cover the impending cuts to research programs.

Right now, the science numbers look pretty anemic. But it ain't over until the fat lady sings. Between now and the beginning of September, science advocates still have a shot at making her album a platinum winner - provided they join in with their own chorus.


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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette