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Inside the Beltway: A Washington Analysis

Holding the Reins of Power Doesn't Mean You're in Control

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

Michael S. LubellIt was supposed to be a slam dunk. The Republicans controlled the House, the Senate and the White House. And President Bush was riding high after the March invasion of Iraq toppled Saddam Hussein with few American fatalities.

Washington was poised for a GOP Trifecta: getting the President's budget passed on time and intact, enacting long-awaited energy legislation, and seizing Democratic turf by fixing Medicare and making prescription drugs available to the elderly.

By year's end, the Republicans had succeeded in achieving only the last goal. The Energy Bill remained stalled by regional differences over ethanol supports and MTBE indemnities. And most of the appropriations bills never made it through the Senate.

Democrats, as might be expected, offered little help. In the Senate, they peppered their rivals with sniper fire, using parliamentary maneuvers and filibusters to tie up legislation, block several key judicial appointments and hold up selected Executive Branch appointments. They succeeded in their mischief because Republicans held a mere two seat advantage and, more often than not, could not muster the 3/5 super majority need to close off debate.

At the start of the session, congressional leaders pledged to have all thirteen appropriations bills ready for the President to sign by October 1, the beginning of Fiscal Year 2004. But by June it became clear that, although the House might be able to meet the deadline, the Senate surely wouldn't.

As the dog days of August approached, a new deadline was set: November 11, Veterans' Day, when Congress planned to adjourn for the year. That, too, turned out to be a dose of misplaced optimism.

Fiscal Year 2004 began with only three appropriations bills signed into law: Defense, Homeland Security and the Legislative Branch. The rest of the government went onto a month-long Continuing Resolution. For civilian science, that meant that no new projects could be started.

On October 31, Congress was forced to pass another Continuing Resolution, since Senate appropriations action remained stalled. Legislators would repeat the process three more times, before both houses adjourned at the beginning of December. By then, the President had signed only three more appropriations bills: Military Construction, Interior and Energy and Water. And congressional leaders had given up all hope of passing the remaining seven bills individually.

On November 25, House Senate conferees announced a deal on an Omnibus Bill to fund all of the programs left hanging. The House returned from an extended Thanksgiving recess for one day on December 9 and adopted the measure, leaving it ready for January Senate consideration.

Apart from setting a record for deficit spending, the $373 billion bill established a new mark for congressional pork, by some estimates, almost $40 billion worth. Without a doubt this left bean counters at the Office of Management and Budget fuming. And it exploded the myth that only Democrats are big spenders, especially when it comes to parochial district and state projects.

The first session of the 108th Congress might not have been the exemplar of good government, but science came out of the legislative chaos in far better shape than most Beltway pundits thought it would. Many of us were convinced that Congress, faced with a tsunami of red ink, would heed White House demands for discretionary budget restraint and trim science funding. That did happen in the case of the Defense Department's 6.1 basic research program which took a 0.9% hit, the NIST labs operating budget which lost 2.0% and USDA research programs, which absorbed a 5% cut.

Elsewhere, though, science budgets expanded modestly: by 3.1% at NIH, 3.6% in the case of the DOD's 6.2 applied research program, 3.8% at the DOE's Office of Science, 5.0 % at NSF and 5.7% at NASA Science, Aeronautics and Exploration.

One big loss occurred on the authorization side. The R&D portion of the Energy Bill would have set the DOE Office of Science on a doubling path, mimicking the NSF authorization legislation that the President signed into law in December 2002. Whether Congress will be able to break the Energy log jam during the second session and establish the principle that the interdependence of the sciences demands parity in funding research across disciplines remains to be seen. What seems more likely is that legislative chaos will be the norm once again during 2004.


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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette