APS News

Inside the Beltway: Innovation and competitiveness is the people’s business.

By Michael S. Lubell,
APS Director of Public Affairs

If Congress fails to fully fund the American Competitiveness Initiative before leaving town for good later this month, partisan bickering will not be the reason.

The need to address innovation and competitiveness has been one of the few issues on which Democrats and Republicans have been able to agree. And remarkably, they have come to consensus on just what kind of federal R&D spending is necessary to keep the nation’s high-tech economy humming–for the new fiscal year, a 14.1 percent increase for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, a 7.8 percent increase for the National Science Foundation and an 18 percent increase (once earmarks are taken into consideration) for the core programs of the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Even more remarkably, those are the very funding levels the White House has endorsed. So getting the budgets passed for these agencies should be a piece of cake, right? Wrong! Not for the 109th Congress.

Remember 1948? That year, Democrat Harry S. Truman scored what historians regard as the greatest upset in presidential campaign history. He did it by ignoring his Republican opponent, New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey, and running, instead, against what he called the Do-Nothing Congress. But if the 80th Congress did nothing, the 109th Congress, according to Hill analysts, has done even less the last two years–if that is mathematically possible.

Except for the two spending bills covering Defense and Homeland Security, all other appropriations bills failed to make it to the Senate floor before October 1, the start of the new fiscal year. The upper chamber did little else, except for endless debates and a few pieces of legislation on highly-partisan wedge issues such as voter identification cards, sex education, gun control and border fences. On September 29 the Senate decided to call a halt to the dysfunctional agony. About all it could do was muster the votes needed to pass a Continuing Resolution that would keep the federal government running until November 17.

It’s no wonder that in the latest polls two thirds of the public gives Congress a grade of F for performance. How that judgment will translate into Election-Day voting is not yet clear, but well regarded analysts, such as Charlie Cook and Thomas Mann, and polling organizations, such as the Rasmussen Reports and Zogby International, say the odds are better than even that the Democrats will take over at least one house.

That may or may not be good for the country, depending upon your perspective. But for the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI), it could spell trouble. Here’s why.

If the Republicans were to retain control of both the House and the Senate, they would likely pass the remaining appropriations bills in the one week the leadership has said it will keep Congress in town before adjourning sine die. They would probably do this by wrapping several of the existing bills together in minibuses or lump them all into one giant omnibus piece of legislation comprising thousands of pages that members will have no time to read before voting yea or nay. In this scenario, it is likely that ACI would receive virtually full funding.

But if the Democrats wrest control of both houses, they would have a great incentive to tie up the Senate, forcing a Continuing Resolution until February when the 110th Congress would convene under their control. If Democrats succeed in winning only one house, a year-long Continuing Resolution looms as a possibility.

Continuing Resolutions in the past have generally kept spending at the lowest of three levels–the previous year’s spending, the appropriations passed by the House or the appropriations passed by the Senate. With ACI carrying big increases for Fiscal Year 2007, such a path forward would put science on hold for another year.

Of course the public could send their elected representatives a clear message when the pollsters call. Bury the partisan hatchets and begin doing the people’s business, as members of Congress are fond of calling their work. Let’s hope they do.



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