APS News

Inside the Beltway

The Task Ahead

by Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

When Barack Obama swept into office nearly two years ago, he was supposed to be the first post-partisan president. He hasn’t been. When he beat John McCain by more than a two to one margin in electoral votes, the Earth was supposed to quake. It didn’t.

And when Republicans were reduced to 40 seats in the Senate and 178 seats in the House of Representatives in the 2008 election, pundits said the GOP was headed for the grave. If, indeed it was–and I never subscribed to that forecast–it has risen like the mythical Phoenix in less than 24 months.

The resurgence of the Republican Party, if nothing else, has proved that democracy is still alive in America: our nation is not heading for one-party government or a state-run economy, as some conservatives had warned as they watched the 2008 returns roll in. 
That’s the good news.

The bad news is the gridlock that has plagued Washington for the last two years will probably get substantially worse in a Congress that is equally divided. It’s hard to see how the dysfunction that is synonymous with the Senate–where one member can stall legislation by placing a secret hold on the proceedings or where 41 members can prevent a bill from being debated at all–will suddenly transform itself an aura of good feeling.

And the House, where the majority party has the power to relegate the minority to little more than a cast of picadors who stick barbs into the bull in the pulpit, will likely remain as undemocratic as ever, even if the party in charge owes its control to but a handful of members on the fringe.

Washington may well continue to dither under a cloud of partisanship, but the problems our nation faces will not wait for another, brighter day when elected officials worry less about future elections and more about reaching consensus on momentous decisions that will determine our nation’s future.

Little more than five years ago, responding to a set of ominous research and development benchmarks assembled by the Taskforce on American Innovation, Congress called on the National Academies to develop a blueprint for future economic growth and global competitiveness based on science and technology. Then, Democrats and Republicans had a shared concern about the course of our nation was plying. Their call to the Academies was a bipartisan clarion.

In less than half a year, a committee chaired by Norman J. Augustine, retired CEO of Lockheed Martin, completed its signature report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm. In stark language, the document laid out the steps policy makers needed to take to prevent the United States from being relegated to a has-been nation. The report led to the Bush Administration’s “American Competitiveness Initiative” and the House Democrat’s “Innovation Agenda.”

The two plans found common ground in the America COMPETES Act of 2007, which called for substantial increases in investments in science research and education. Congress passed the three-year authorization bill with large bipartisan majorities, and President Bush signed it into law. But that was in August 2007 when Democrats and Republicans still made an occasional show of working together for the good of the nation. No more.

Last month the Augustine Committee issued a dire forecast in an Academies reprise. Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5 warns that in science and technology the United States is now positioned far worse than it was just five years ago. Support for key federal agencies has lagged, and policies to improve science teaching and increased industrial R&D have failed to materialize.

And what began in 2007 as a joint effort to reinvigorate America’s science and technology proficiency has now fallen victim to partisan sniping and hubris. When the House finally passed the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010 last May 28, only 17 out of 177 Republicans voted for it–this, despite the backing of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers, both bulwarks of a pro-business Republican agenda.

As for the Senate, the Democratic leadership’s focus on election-year wedge issues, such as immigration and gays in the military, relegated COMPETES to the backburner or no burner at all. Without any sense of urgency, the bill hasn’t even received floor consideration.

While Washington spends its time on partisan nastiness, the rest of the world is moving ahead without us. China, India, and Germany are poised to take over where we’ve left off.

And with dozens of newbies who have scant knowledge about science, innovation and competitiveness preparing to take their seats in the 112th Congress in January, we have a monumental task ahead of us. We need them to understand that science and technology drive the American economy and that federal neglect of research and development will relegate our nation to second-class status in the 21st-century world.


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Editor: Alan Chodos