APS News

Inside the Beltway: A Washington Analysis

By Michael S. Lubell,APS Director of Public Affairs

October 1 arrived, but hardly anyone could have noticed that Fiscal Year 2003 had begun. For the first time in memory, Congress had failed to pass even one of the 13 appropriations bills needed to keep the government running. To tide the country over, lawmakers simply enacted a continuing resolution that allows departments and agencies to continue to spend at last year's levels but prohibits them from initiating any new programs.

For science, the news is not very good. Although the Bush Administration had only requested budget increases for National Institutes of Health research and Defense Department development, Congress was poised to add significant monetary resources to the coffers of the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy's Office of Science and NASA's Space Science Program.

Hard work by the science community throughout the spring and summer months was indeed paying off. Had Congress finished its fiscal business before recessing for the November election, APS members, who had weighed in with more than 7,500 letters, faxes, e-mails and telephone calls, would have been richly rewarded. But whetted appetites will have to go unsated, at least for a while.

The story of the legislative collapse is worth recounting. Here's what happened.

For years, Pennsylvania Avenue has been a well-worn conduit for tension and invective between the legislative and executive branches. But for most of this year the artery has been filled to capacity.

More so than any past White House occupant, George W. Bush, the first president with an MBA, has operated in the mode of a true corporate CEO. That means top-down management, brooking no dissent and sharing as little information as possible with the outside world, including Congress. Administrators who do not toe the line are swiftly shown the door. More of this at the conclusion.

The Bush presidential style does not sit well with members of Congress in either party, who as the elected representatives of the people, demand due deference daily. When the President treats them with disdain-that happened during Clinton's first term-they get their hackles up and run with their own agenda.

Last February, the White House warned Congress that appropriations bills faced certain vetoes if they exceeded any of the presidential requests. Appropriators took a quick look at the numbers and immediately concluded that the Bush limits spelled certain congressional death.

Nonetheless, the House did the President's bidding and adopted a budget resolution that would hold total discretionary spending at the White House level of $759 billion. And that's where the action stalled. The appropriators could not get their bills to fit and essentially gave up trying, refusing to challenge a stalwart group of 50 of their arch-conservative House colleagues, who backed the President to the hilt.

The Senate took a pass on a budget resolution entirely and proceeded directly to its version of the appropriations bills. It succeeded in passing most of them without much rancor, but the finished products totaled $768 billion, $9 billion more than the President was willing to accept. End of story—well, almost.

Throughout the year, the White House has remained unrelenting in its opposition to spending increases for virtually anything other than Homeland Security and the military, often using agency heads as the messengers. Consider this one example.

As the House and Senate jointly moved ahead with an authorization bill that would set the NSF on a course to double its budget over a five-year period, the Foundation's director expressed the Administration's position this way in a letter that was sent to Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) on September 16.

"While the Foundation appreciates the Committee's firm commitment to support fundamental research and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education,... we oppose S. 2817 in its current form....The amounts authorized ... do not conform to the Administration's FY 2003 Budget request...."

What was that request for research, you ask? You guessed it: zero increase, after transfers of activities from other agencies are taken into account.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette