APS News

Inside the Beltway: A Washington Analysis

Duels or Deals?

Outlook for Science Uncertain in Partisan Climate

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

Washington scales tipped heavily toward the APS in Y2K. On three key issues, members weighed in and scored major victories. No recounts, no dimples, no missing chads, just outright wins.

On nuclear missile defense, an issue on which the APS has had a long history of involvement, President Clinton heeded the advice he received from the physics community and delayed a deployment decision. By doing so, he adhered to Defense Reauthorization legislation, requiring demonstration of technical feasibility prior to deployment, language that the APS helped craft a year earlier.

On the Spallation Neutron Source, which the House budget would have effectively killed, APS letters assisted Senate advocates in restoring funding. The SNS story and the APS role were big enough for CQ Weekly, the premier Hill journal, to feature it last summer in "Between the Lines," CQ's highlights on the congressional agenda.

But the science budget was the biggest story. At the outset of the congressional season, another 15 percent boost for NIH was the only certainty, this despite the President's request for major increases for virtually all other agencies. Budget caps, water projects, veterans programs and weaponry created a miasma that promised to suffocate science. But when the air cleared, NSF, DOE and DOD all came away with hefty gains, due in no small measure to the campaign waged by the science community in support of its House and Senate patrons.

Don't look for Y2K to be a precedent setter. The year 2001 could well be a deflator. Here's why.

During the presidential campaigns, both candidates carved out positions that severely constrain discretionary budget options. "W" promised major tax cuts that will reduce revenues in the short run, and Al committed to smaller tax cuts, compensated by big boosts for prescription drug and education programs. Fitting science into this policy landscape is a herculean task.

The political landscape offers science little solace. Lost amid the public fascination with the legal jousting over the presidential returns is the very real threat of chaos on Capitol Hill when the 107th Congress convenes. Both houses face the prospects of deadlocks, driven by the closest division of political power in American history.

Technically, the Republicans control both chambers, with a nine-vote margin in the House and with the Vice President serving as a tie-breaker in the Senate, if the 50-50 split holds up. But as a practical matter, GOP leaders will have to work across the aisle, if they are to achieve any meaningful results. Their prospects are not good. The election snarl in Florida has left both sides snarling.

In the Senate, Democrats have already threatened to tie up all legislation if they are not granted some form of power sharing, from evenly divided committees, at the least, to a sizable fraction of chairmanships at the extreme. Thus far, they have found meager support for their propositions, especially from GOP hardliners. Absent a deal, they could even hold up confirmation of a Bush administration's presidential appointments.

In the House, the dueling is apt to be worse, across party lines and within the Republican Conference itself. Democrats are howling for more accommodation. And the GOP right wing is pressing its leaders to bypass moderates and leapfrog conservatives into chairmanships.

Science fares best when deals are cut, not when duels become the norm. Stay tuned.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette