APS News

Inside the Beltway: A Washington Analysis

Spending Floodgates Open as Election Nears

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

Under the gun all summer, DOE's science accounts finally received major boosts when the House-Senate conference report won approval early in October. It was due in no small measure to the remarkable efforts of the research community throughout the preceding months.

The budgetary end game also drove a stake through the corpus of The Contract With America. At least that's the read around this town, where everyone is a card-carrying pundit.

Six years ago, the House Republicans unveiled a blueprint for reform that ultimately led to GOP control of Congress for the first time in 40 years. Cutting the size of government, reducing federal spending and cutting taxes were prime among the Contract's core principles.

One look at the spending bills that have emerged from the 106th Congress is enough to tell you that these principles have been blown away by the tried and true doctrine of all political life, "Get reelected first."

When President Clinton sent his budget up to Capitol Hill last February, Republican congressional leaders declared it dead on arrival. Even some Democrats termed it an election-year document, worth little more than the ink with which it was printed. It called for more than $623 billion in discretionary spending, with generous dollops of dollars for research.

The official White House line was that it didn't break the budget caps established in 1997. No small feat, since those caps called for $572 billion for Fiscal Year 2001.

Republicans said that, in the end, a good deal of the presidential ink would disappear. Early on, in April, to prove its point, Congress passed a Budget Resolution that stripped away almost $23 billion. The $600 billion remaining, GOP leaders said, really didn't break the cap. (Who were these guys kidding?)

Appropriators, with their political standing on the line in every spending bill, quickly warned that there was no way they could fund the programs the public demanded with the budget allocations they had received Still, the congressional leaders said, "Press on."

Savvy "cardinals," like James Walsh (R-NY), who has responsibility for the bill that funds the Veterans Administration, Housing and Urban Development and Independent Agencies, as early as last spring predicted that, by the time the session ended, deals would be struck and discretionary spending would approach the level of the presidential request, including the National Science Foundation. His advice to the science community, in so many words, was, "Scream loud and often."

But even Walsh underestimated the extent of the election-year thirst. By the time Congress returned from the convention recess after Labor Day, only two of the thirteen appropriations bills had been signed into law. True, House members had swallowed hard and passed ten of the remaining bills. Privately, however, many of them said that they trusted that the Senate would take responsibility and fill in the gaping holes.

But senators wanted no part of the blame for breaking the Budget Resolution barrier. Never quick to move on any legislation, the upper body dragged the appropriations bills along at the pace of a slug and often threw them back at the House with differences so large they couldn't be resolved without radical infusions of cash.

The Energy and Water Bill illustrates this well. The House had amply funded water projects but shortchanged the weapons labs, Basic Energy Sciences and the Spallation Neutron Source. The Senate had replied by cutting water projects, slashing high-energy physics and fusion, while restoring funding for the weapons labs and the SNS.

With the clock ticking and Election Day fast approaching, Congressional leaders, loathe to negotiate with the White House on an omnibus appropriations bill, finally opened up the flood gates, funding water projects, weapons labs and science.

As money flowed into the appropriators coffers, NSF, NASA and the National Institutes of Health all saw their budgets swell. But it didn't end there. Science, after all, doesn't win elections. Highways, court houses, bridges, parks and dams do.

You can imagine the talk: "If we're breaking the caps, what the hell, lets go whole hog and pork it up real big. And hot to trot, let's blow town before anyone adds up the numbers. What's the difference between $623 and $630 billion? Voters can't add numbers that big, anyway."

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette