APS News

Inside the Beltway

Shoot-Out at the O.K. Corral

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

It was Washington, not Tombstone, and it was 2007, not 1881, but when Congress finally passed the Omnibus spending bill for Fiscal Year 2008 shortly before Christmas, their labor left many government activities riddled with holes.

Like the shoot-out at the O.K. Corral a century earlier, some of the facts surrounding the fiscal casualties still remain murky. And just as Tom McClaury and Billy Clanton might have escaped the hail of bullets that day had Wyatt Earp and “Doc” Holliday known they were unarmed, science might have come through the partisan fusillade last year had Congress known the consequences of its actions.

But McClaury and Clanton were mortally wounded. And though science is still alive, it is badly in need of life support.

The dispute between Earp and the “Cowboys” dated back more than a year before the shoot-out.  And so, too, with the Fiscal Year 2008 science budget: the seeds of the antagonism that led to its collapse were sown in 2006.

In his State of the Union Address that year, President Bush unveiled the American Competitiveness Initiative that put the research budgets of the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the National Science Foundation on a ten-year doubling path. The President’s announcement followed on the heels of the National Academies’ report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, and the House Democrats’ release of their Innovation Agenda.

With Congress still in the hands of the Republicans, who had catered  to the White House during the previous three years, Washington assumed that 2006 would continue the pattern. But by the time the November elections rolled around, the Republicans had failed to pass any domestic appropriations bills. And after their defeat at the polls, the GOP packed its bags, leaving behind a huge fiscal mess for the 110th Democratic Congress to clean up.

As the Republicans fled, Democrats warned they would have less than a month to deal with Fiscal Year 2007 spending before the 2008 budget landed on their desks. All they could do, they said, was pass a Continuing Resolution, freezing all programs at the previous year’s level. The President’s competitive initiative, ACI, would have to be put on hold for a year.

But following an intense lobbying effort, science advocates managed to get a rare limited waiver for the three ACI agencies, and funding rose, though not as much as the President had requested. With White House science advisor Jack Marburger still sidelined by illness, the Office of Science and Technology Policy scolded the Democrats for funding only half the President’s request: not a word about the failures of the 109th Republican Congress.

The partisan attack did not sit well with Democrats. Just hours later, House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-6th TN) responded, “While the President’s [FY 2008] budget includes some important funding increases, it lacks the priorities and consistency to ensure our competitiveness now and in the long run.”
So much for science bipartisanship! Still, in the coming months, Congress managed to pass overwhelmingly the America COMPETES Act that authorized the ACI doubling, and despite some grumbling, the President signed the bill. The House also passed spending bills with the ACI increases included. So too, did the Senate Appropriations Committee.

But the Senate leadership failed to bring any of its bills to the floor for a vote. Ultimately, the only option was an eleventh-hour $933 billion Omnibus bill, $22 billion above the White House bottom line.

The President held to his number, adamantly refusing even to meet with the Democrats. And in return Democrats swore that they would “whack GOP priorities” to meet his demand. They did. In the process, the ACI increases evaporated.

Was science simply caught in the crossfire, or was ACI a target? We may never know.

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