APS News

Inside the Beltway: Washington Analysis and Opinion

The Sky, The Sky Is Falling. I Must Go Tell the King.

by Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

Honesty does pay off, even in Washington– sometimes. Case in point: the President’s Fiscal Year 2006 budget request for science at the Department of Energy, which Ray Orbach, the Director of the DOE Office of Science, was frank enough to admit last February would wreak havoc with university research programs and facilities operations.

Three months later, the House of Representatives responded by substituting a 1.5 percent increase for the 4.5 percent cut the White House had proposed. And Orbach still has his job.

Three years ago, Mike Parker, who was then Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, tried the same gambit with the presidential budget request for the Army Corps of Engineers. Under questioning by the Senate Budget committee, Parker, a former Republican congressman from Mississippi, admitted to his ex-colleagues on the Hill that the White House budget plan for Fiscal Year 2003 would force the Corps to cancel $190 million in already contracted projects.

Parker not only didn’t get all the money he was seeking, he lost his job. Of course, he had to contend with an unsympathetic boss, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, no pussycat he, who felt he had been badly undercut.

Ray Orbach was more fortunate–some might argue, more savvy. His boss, Sam Bodman, had inherited the DOE science budget when he took the job of Secretary of Energy in February. As a former MIT professor of chemical engineering and a venture capitalist, he wasn’t too fond of the proposed spending plan either.

But it didn’t hurt that the House Appropriations Subcommittee for Energy and Water Projects has David Hobson (R-OH) as chairman and Peter Visclosky (D-IN) as ranking member. Both of them are big boosters of science.

And it probably didn’t hurt that APS members had flooded Capitol Hill with more than six thousand letters beginning in March, and that hundreds of scientists had roamed the corridors of power during a series of congressional visits beginning in January.

The core programs at the National Institute of Standards and Technology didn’t fare as well, even though Frank Wolf, who chairs the new House Appropriations Subcommittee for Science, State, Justice and Commerce, is one of the true research and innovation champions on Capitol Hill.

The message Wolf had received from the Commerce Department was that the presidential budget had provided the NIST labs with a 10 percent boost. So a small trimming of the request for the labs in order to better fund the Manufacturing Extension program that the White House had proposed to cut seemed a reasonable approach. It would have been, but for the large shortfall in the closeout costs for the Advanced Technology Program that the Administration had somehow forgotten to mention. Absent remedial action by the Senate, NIST could wind up in the minus column.

Let’s be honest, though, Congress faces a daunting job, trying to fund programs with money it doesn’t have. The truth is that the United States treasury is in desperate need of disaster relief.

The real budget deficit this year will be about $600 billion, the balance of trade deficit will reach $700 billion, and the national debt, within four years, will climb to about half the gross domestic product, with China holding a good fraction of the outstanding IOU’s. Social Security will be paying out more than it will be bringing in within a dozen years, and Medicare could be on life support even sooner. Chicken Little is right to be scared.

Today, as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product, the federal treasury is collecting less than at any time in the post World War II era. The culprit is the 2001 tax cuts that are about to become permanent. They have left a $500 billion hole that wishful thinking and discretionary budget trimming cannot possibly fill.

The only solution is to increase taxes and cut entitlements. But both political parties have learned their lessons well. Whoever blinks first and utters the "T" word loses: the Republicans sacrificed the Senate in 1986 after the Reagan increase and the White House in 1992 after the Bush increase, and the Democrats gave up the House and the Senate in 1994 following the Clinton increase. And whoever suggests cutting back on Social Security and Medicare will be out of office in an instant.

So where does that leave research? Well, in a $2.4 trillion budget, it will only take about $2 billion of additional spending to keep the science level of effort constant. That’s really not too much to pay to secure our nation’s future, even when the sky seems to be falling.


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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff