APS News

Inside the Beltway: A Washington Analysis

Cold Turkey and a Glass of Bubbly

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

Michael S. LubellIt may not be a hot feast this year, but at least the bird's still on the table. A decade ago, with Congress and the White House focused on deficit reduction, science faced the grim reality of years without Thanksgivings. Back then, about the only upbeat advocate on Capitol Hill was Newt Gingrich, the newly elected Republican Speaker of the House and an unabashed techie.

Times have changed. Speaker Gingrich is gone, but in his place are more than a dozen members of Congress in each chamber who have science high on their list of priorities.

Count among them "old bulls" like Senators Pete V. Domenici (R-NM), "Fritz" Hollings (D-SC), Barbara A. Mikulski (D-MD) and John Warner (R-VA). Add to the list eight more members of the "Club": Lamar Alexander (R-TN), George Allen (R-VA), Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), "Kit" Bond (R-MO), Majority leader Bill Frist (R-TN), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), Ron Wyden (D-OR) and presidential contenders John F. Kerry (D-MA) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-CT).

In the people's House, the leadership may be barren ground for science champions, but not so one level down. Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-CA), Science Committee Chairman Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-NY), VA HUD Chairman James T. Walsh (R-NY) and Ranking Member Allan B. Mollohan (D- WV) and Energy and Water Chairman David Hobson (R-OH) are staunch defenders of the faith. So too are Judy Biggert (R-IL), Nick Lampson (D-TX), Nick Smith (R-MI), Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Edward J. Markey (D-MA) Michael Capuano (D-MA) and California Democrats Anna Eshoo, Mike Honda, Zoe Lofgren, Ellen O. Tauscher, and Lynn Woolsey. And of course two APS Fellows, Vern Ehlers (R-MI) and Rush Holt (D-NJ).

In truth, these days it's easier to find science protagonists on the Hill than a single antagonist. We should be thankful for that in this holiday season, because the next few years are not going to be easy for budgeteers of any persuasion. Even the White House Office of Management and Budget concedes that the tide of red ink could reach five percent of GDP next year, the tipping point, according to most economists, for public loss of confidence in a government's ability to make good on its IOU's.

In this nasty fiscal climate, it's hard to see how any part of the discretionary budget?of which, these days, science has become a significant element?will escape unscathed. But so far, science is not on the chopping block. And with Congress chock full of believers, it may well stay that way, provided the community keeps hammering home the same message that built up the ranks of Hill champions during the last ten years.

From my perch, ten stories up in the National Press Building, three blocks from the White House and a mile or so from the Capitol, these are the themes that will resonate in a time of fiscal crunch, as we enter the run-up to the 2004 election. The sciences?especially the physical sciences?along with engineering are the job engines of the 21st century economy. The sciences?especially the physical sciences-are the generators of American wealth. The sciences?especially the physical sciences?are key to securing our safety at home and serving our military needs abroad. The sciences?especially the physical sciences?will pave the road to energy independence.

But is it responsible for lawmakers to bump the science budget up by a billion dollars or so when the nation faces a deficit of $500 billion? Fair question to ask. But not a tough one to answer.

First, consider how much worse a deficit of $501 billion is than one of $500 billion. The financial markets won't even notice. The difference is in the noise.

Second, without substantial economic growth, largely driven by innovation, the deficit will become structural. Tax increases are not an option?except for political masochists. Social Security and Medicare are the third rail of politics?they won't be touched. And the discretionary budget, including defense, would have to be cut by 90%?that won't happen either.

Investing in science is clearly the best bet for growing the economy and fighting our way back to fiscal sanity. So pull the cork on a bottle of bubbly and toast the champions of science. They deserve it.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette