APS News

Inside the Beltway

The Science of Political Seismology

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

In the post-Clinton era it takes more than a thong and a cigar to rattle the cages of Washington officialdom. But that's what happened when a normally taciturn New Englander, Senator James Jeffords of Vermont, announced that he was leaving the Republican fold.

For the first time in American history, a political party gained control of a house of Congress through an action not related to an electoral outcome. It took the Republican party more than half a century to take over simultaneously the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives, and it lasted less than five months.

Whether the shift in control of the Senate will have any impact on science policy is problematic. We'll take a close look in a moment, but a derigueur report of political recriminations comes first.

As soon as Jeffords made his intentions known, both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue revved up their PR operations. Amidst charges of insensitivity, miscalculation and incompetence, a stunned President Bush vociferously denied that his Administration's conservative agenda had driven Jeffords away. And a suddenly diminished Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) lashed out at Democrats as he summarily rejected the premise that the GOP leadership had frozen out Jeffords' moderate views.

There was an element of truth to both disavowals. The fact is that Jeffords for years had cast his votes, as well as his lot, with Democrats on many key issues. He was the sole Republican voting nay on the Reagan tax cut two decades ago, and his positions on abortion, missile defense and education were increasingly at odds with GOP policies.

In a 50-50 Senate, where a single Republican defection would produce a temblor, the temptation to part company with his party, whose philosophy had long been out of sync with his own, in the end simply proved too great. Jeffords bolted and Washington was jolted.

Without question, the political landscape will be altered for the balance of the 107th Congress. But those changes are unlikely to affect science in any major way. Here's why.

Control of the Senate hands over to the Democrats selection of committee chairmanships and management of the legislative agenda. But that's all. Since the membership of the Senate remains unchanged, and since it takes 60 votes to break a filibuster - a super-majority that neither party can muster on its own - legislation that passes ultimately will have to attract bipartisan support.

Senate Democrats undoubtedly will use their newly-gained power to feature their issues: education, a patient's bill of rights and increases in the minimum wage. And they will use their control of the Judiciary Committee to block the appointment of the most conservative presidential nominees for the federal bench.

But they will be circumspect when it comes to blocking the majority of the President's agenda. Politically, they cannot be perceived as being obstructionists, the way the Republicans were, when the House, under Newt Gingrich, incurred public opprobrium for "shutting the government down."

And they will have extraordinary difficulty advancing their own legislation, since Republicans still control the House of Representatives and the White House.

This is how four key APS issues are likely to be affected. The science budget will continue to be squeezed, largely as a result of the $1.35 trillion tax cut, anticipated increases for defense spending and the four-percent cap on the growth of discretionary spending imposed by the White House. Although a four-percent increase covers inflation and population growth, increases in military spending will leave the rest of the discretionary budget substantially in the hole.

Recent analyses also predict that within two years, the federal government will once again face mounting deficits, if, as is widely expected, Congress extends the ceiling on the alternative minimum tax, which is scheduled to expire in 2004 under the quirkiness of the tax bill just passed.

On National Missile Defense, the White House will now have to answer to Carl Levin (D-MI) instead of John Warner (R-VA) as chairman of the Armed Services Committee and to Joseph Biden (D-DE) instead of Jesse Helms (R-NC) as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. That undoubtedly will delay deployment. But it won't kill it, since Levin and Biden both support substantial R&D spending for the program.

On energy R&D, there is already mounting bipartisan support for restoring much of the 30 to 50 percent cut to conservation and renewables contained in the presidential request. And on science education, there will be little fallout, since a strong bipartisan consensus already exists.

Jeffords' defection may be a seismic historical event, but for science it will be a minor tremor.



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