Morning Coffee

by Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

For me, morning without coffee is like breathing without oxygen. It’s a killer. Much the same can be said about the House budget plans for science that Republicans are pressing as a prerequisite for keeping the government functioning for the balance of the fiscal year.

It’s not that Republicans have it in for science. It’s not even that Messrs. Boehner–the House Speaker from Ohio’s 8th District whose lachrymose spigots always seem to malfunction–and Eric Cantor–the Majority Leader from Virginia’s 7th District whose high ambitions complement his intellectual acumen–want to cripple the federal government and the technology-driven American economy. It’s simply that elections have consequences.

Two years ago, just three days after Barack Obama’s Administration opened for business, Cantor, who was then the GOP Whip, attended a White House meeting with congressional leaders from both parties. Armed with a to-do list for the economy, Cantor made his case for small business tax cuts. Obama, whose economic team had its own ideas about how to get the American economy back on track, rejected Cantor’s proposals, punctuating his rebuff with this bit of chest thumping: “Elections have consequences, and at the end of the day, I won.”

Scroll forward two years, and it’s Republican swagger that is grabbing at the reins of overreach.  It’s not Boehner or Cantor, per se, but rather the House Republican Study Committee (RSC) that is driving the GOP agenda, and, if reports from the Hill are correct, driving Boehner and Cantor bonkers. The RSC espouses conservative social and economic values, that some observers argue go well beyond the historical bounds of Republican tradition.

But, beefed up by the election of dozens of Tea Party adherents, the RSC has become a potent force within the House simply by virtue of its numbers; 175 of the 242 Republicans in the 112th Congress belong to it. And they are not shy about denouncing federal programs and federal spending that do not fit the mold of a constitutionally limited government, which within their ideology must properly focus only on “a strong national defense, protection of individual and property rights and preservation of traditional family values.” For many members of the RSC, science is just one more example of the federal government run amok.

Viewed through such a lens, it’s no mystery that the $100 billion in cuts to civilian discretionary programs that the RSC has demanded from the balance of the current fiscal year does not grant science a waiver. And it’s no mystery that Boehner and Cantor have agreed to advance that agenda. If they don’t march in lockstep with the RSC, they could lose their leadership positions.

President Obama was right: elections do indeed have consequences. Boehner and Cantor know it, and if scientists haven’t yet recognized it, the coming months will drive the point home.

But as the President’s fiscal year 2012 budget request demonstrates, we’re far from a science Armageddon. Although the White House plan for the coming year is austere by comparison with recent big-spending budgets, it checks a high-priority box for research and education. As the debates over deficit reduction, taxes and spending unfold over the coming months, it is at least comforting to know that the current resident of the White House is committed to sustaining the momentum established for science by his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, in his 2006 American Competitiveness Initiative.

But as Tea Party extremists have begun to dig deep trenches, it is possible the ensuing budget battles will sweep away the non-partisan ground that science has traditionally occupied. And if it does, we will all be worse off. We will lose economically and intellectually. We will lose jobs and high-tech manufacturing. We will lose our leadership in discovery and innovation. And at a time when other nations are getting ready to eat our technological lunch, we will be serving it to them on a fine set of china. It’s enough to cause nightmares.

But if we wake up soon enough, we’ll still find the morning coffee brewing, and we’ll be able to meet the challenges of another day.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Alan Chodos

March 2011 (Volume 20, Number 3)

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Articles in this Issue
Strong Physics Lineup at Dallas March Meeting
New Access Policy Includes Full Reuse Rights
APS Releases Report on Energy-Critical Elements
Six Programs Get Outreach Mini-Grants
Science Funding on the Table as President, Congress Battle Over Budget
APS Launches Exchange Program with Brazil
President Will Mount Vigorous Defense of Science Funding, Says Advisor Holdren
APS Develops Mentor Training Guide
Letters To the Editor
The Back Page
Members in the Media
This Month in Physics History
The Education Corner
Inside the Beltway