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Inside the Beltway: Washington Analysis and Opinion

Bipartisanship?  Fuggedaboutit!


By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

A few months ago, several Beltway advocates met in Intel’s Washington offices for an off-the-record discussion with a senior White House official. We were out to gather some intel on the President’s FY 2008 budget request, which was still several weeks away. The Administration, our source assured us, was going to follow through on the next installment of the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI), which promises to double the aggregate budgets of the DOE Office of Science, the NIST laboratories and the National Science Foundation over ten years.

That was comforting news, but our anxiety and depression about the FY 2007 budget badly needed a dose of Prozac. First, before the November election, the Republican controlled Senate had held all spending bills hostage, other than Defense and Homeland Security. Then, after the election, a group of 60 House Republican budget hawks blocked all further action. And finally, David Obey (D-WI) and Robert C. Byrd (D-WV), the new chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, out of frustration with the impossible task of crafting spending bills for all of the federal government in a matter of a few weeks after the 110th Congress convened, pledged that they would put all departments and agencies on a year-long Continuing Resolution (CR).

“If Obey and Byrd followed through,” I told the White House official, “all the wind would be taken out of science’s sail, generally, and the ACI, specifically.” With Democrats and Republicans both having endorsed an agenda for discovery and innovation, I suggested that the White House might want to issue a statement of “bipartisan” criticism of the budget process to date.

“No chance of that. It’s up to the Democrats to fix the problem,” he said. “They won the election. It’s their predicament.”

That was the first evidence I had –although it came as no surprise –that bipartisanship was going to remain little more than rhetoric.  As the newly elected members of the 110th Congress filed in to take their oaths of office, more evidence rolled in. First a little background.

Several years ago the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) issued a report slamming the Bush Administration for scientific malfeasance.  The essence of the charge was that the White House cherry picked scientific facts to suit its political agenda, imposed partisan and ideological litmus tests for appointees to federal advisory committees and generally relegated science policy to the Potomac River swamps.

The UCS report was just a trifle hyperbolic and tinged with partisanship. With Republicans firmly in control of both houses of Congress, it was guaranteed to land with a dull thud on Capitol Hill, which it did.  

To be fair, Congress did not single out science in its callous disregard of its Constitutional oversight responsibilities. Foreign affairs, defense policy, intelligence, environmental regulation, Katrina and homeland security all fell victim to a withering of congressional will in the face of expanding executive privilege and public fear of radical Islamic terrorism.

The landscape changed dramatically last November when Democrats regained control of both houses. Since then they predictably have been flexing their investigative muscles. That has come as no surprise to the White House, which, apart from a political blind spot on Iraq, has proved itself extraordinarily adept at reading the Potomac currents.

The last ballots were barely counted when President Bush invited the new leaders of Congress to the White House and publicly pledged that he wanted to work with them to tackle the weighty issues facing the nation.  House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) may have harbored a few skeptical thoughts, but they kept them to themselves and proclaimed their support for bipartisanship.

For science, the hugs and kisses didn’t last long. The House Science and Technology Committee, under the chairmanship of Bart Gordon, a moderate Democrat from Tennessee, signaled that it took seriously the UCS allegations of the Bush Administration’s misuse of science when it formed a new Oversight Subcommittee under the leadership of Brad Miller (D-NC).

At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, love fell victim to politics, as well. Intense lobbying by science advocates and key science partisans in both the House and Senate in January and February had successfully pushed DOE, NIST and NSF up on the priority list, enabling them, along with vets and highways, to qualify for special treatment in the CR. As a result, they received much of the money contained in the FY 07 presidential request for ACI–an extraordinarily heavy lift, given Obey and Byrd’s opening gambit. But in its FY 08 budget briefing, the White House lambasted the Democrats for short changing science in the FY 07 CR. No mention of the failings of the 109th Congress, which the Republicans controlled.

Bart Gordon quickly fired back with his assessment of the President proposed FY 08 budget. The headline of his February 5 press release screamed, “Gordon on President’s FY 08 Budget: Lacks Priorities, Consistency to Ensure U.S. Competitiveness.”  Oh, incidentally, the White House and Congress didn’t send each other Valentine’s Day chocolates either.

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