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Inside the Beltway

Democrats in control: what next?

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

Divided government! For the next two years, that’s how Washington will function. Of course, looking back on the “Do-Nothing” 109th Congress, if gridlock does develop, you will hardly notice the difference.

It’s far too early for anyone to make any serious forecasts, but to prepare myself for the inevitable post-election dinner conversations I decided to drop in on a former Republican member of the House shortly after the November election. He left the Hill some years ago and turned lobbyist.  But he has remained an astute political analyst and is still passionate about research.

Our meeting was private, and for that reason I will simply call him P.D. Jones. All you need to know is that Mr. Jones is a moderate, and that, despite his centrist philosophy, he was able to achieve prominence in the 1990’s in a Republican Conference heavily dominated by conservatives. His success was a tribute to his political acumen and his ability to achieve consensus across the ideological spectrum.

P.D. and I found that we agreed that the November 7th outcome was not very surprising. Both of us had long believed that a flip in House control was a virtual certainty.  Tracking polls had predicted the Democratic takeover very clearly for many months. But we both admitted that we had not foreseen a real possibility of takeover in the Senate until a few days before the election.

Our conversation quickly turned to what had really caused the Republicans to lose control of both chambers.

In the lead-up to November 7th, most TV talking heads, from Eleanor Clift on the left to Tony Blankley on the right, had said that the election was going to be a referendum on Iraq. Clift said that President Bush’s war negatives were enough to take down Republican candidates.  Blankley said that, despite the dismal White House approval rating, Republicans still had a shot at retaining control because they had a superior “Get-Out-the-Vote” operation.

As it turned out Clift was right about the outcome but not for the right reason, at least not entirely. In exit polls throughout the country, voters said that scandals and ethics violations had been their prime rationale for kicking out the Republicans. The Iraq war was second and the economy third.

“You know,” P.D. said, “they got what they deserved! When you lose the trust of the public, you’re finished.”

“Of course,” he added, “they also screwed up in another way: they tilted so far right, they marginalized themselves. If you lose the center, you lose the election.” To validate his conclusion, he noted that both Democrats and Republicans had turned out at the polls in roughly equal numbers and, by and large, they had voted along party lines. But Independents had voted Democratic by margins as large as two to one in many districts.

“If House Democratic leaders take away one lesson from the last twelve years,” P.D. said, “it should be that you have to govern from the center.  The question is, will they?”

“I suspect so,” I told P.D., “if only because many of the new members are not ideologues. They won in conservative districts by advancing a moderate philosophy.”

“In fact,” I noted, “many new House members have already allied themselves with the Blue Dogs, [fiscally conservative and, in most respects, socially moderate]. And despite the warning Republicans had issued during the election, the new Democratic House leadership is fairly balanced between liberals and moderates.”

What is in store for science is yet uncertain, we both agreed, but it’s a good bet that Congress will exert far more oversight over the executive branch. During the last three weeks, three House committee chairs have indicated that they will delve into the Administration’s alleged misuse of science and gagging of agency scientists who disagreed with White House policies.

The Democratic leadership in both chambers has also indicated that committee chairs will have more latitude in developing their priorities than their Republican counterparts had during the last twelve years. And the leadership has vowed to be more respectful of the Republican minority and to accord them more of a role in formulating legislation. Time will tell.

During the 2006 campaign, Democrats pledged not only to clean up the ethical mess but also to reinstall pay-as-you-go budgeting. What “Pay-Go” means is either providing budgetary offsets for any new programs or enhancing revenues. With the physical sciences slated for big percentage increases in the American Competitiveness Initiative, “Pay-Go” could spell trouble, although Speaker Pelosi has said that the Democrat’s Innovation Agenda remains one of the top priorities.

But whatever else they do down the road, Democrats must immediately pass the FY 2007 budget, which the Republicans “irresponsibly” dumped in their lap, as P.D. put it.  Otherwise, government will operate under a yearlong Continuing Resolution with the science increases vaporizing into political smoke.  “And that,” we agreed, “would be reprehensible.”

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