APS News

Inside the Beltway

Lame, Lamer, Lamest

by Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

About the only people who relish a lame duck are hunters in their blinds and Washington columnists. But never having worn camouflage or fired buckshot at forsaken fowl, I can’t relate to the bird stalkers.

Washington columnists, on the other hand, are part of a breed I understand well. And when Congress reconvenes on November 13 in a post-election lame duck session, I know their juices will begin to gush.

It wasn’t too many years ago that Congress actually tried to get most of its work done before the first Potomac cold snap. No more! Around Washington, temperatures began to dip below freezing in mid-October, but members of Congress had bolted weeks earlier, leaving all the burning legislative issues on a cold Capitol Hill cooktop.

When they return from their hometown turf on November 13, they will face a plethora of daunting decisions: extending the Bush era tax cuts (or not), raising the debt ceiling (“not” is not an option, except for Tea Partisans), addressing the “doc fix”–a perennial Medicare sore–putting another patch on the alternative minimum tax and trying to avoid the sequestrations mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act–a problem that no one envisioned a year ago but that now epitomizes the odious outcome of Washington’s dysfunction.

About the only major issue members of Congress won’t have to deal with is the fiscal year 2013 budget. It’s off the table, not because they completed their work, but because they kicked their principal responsibility down the legislative road until next March. Before they went on the lam at the end of September, they passed a Continuing Resolution that keeps the dysfunction functioning, at least for now.

Having ducked their duties for more than a year, will it be possible for the lame duckers to deliver anything more than more temporary palliatives? It’s unlikely, but miracles do occur once in a long while.

Just ask Paul Broun (R-GA 10th), a medical doctor and a member of the House Science Committee, who last month called evolution, embryology and the Big Bang theory “lies straight from the pit of hell.” Speaking at the Liberty Baptist Church Sportsman’s banquet in Hartwell, Georgia, Broun opined, “You see, there are a lot of scientific data that I’ve found as a scientist that actually show that this is a really young Earth. I don’t believe that the Earth is but 9,000 years old. I believe it was created in six days, as we know them. That’s what the Bible says.”

If Moses parted the Red Sea, and Jesus walked on the waters of Galilee, miracles surely can happen on the banks of the Potomac. But, in the upcoming lame duck session, unfortunately, a miracle is not very likely. The lame ducks are more liable to be lamer than usual. Here’s why.

For months, Wall Street and financial titans around the world have been warning of another global recession if Washington marches off a fiscal cliff by ignoring all the daunting tax and spending issues. But more recently, policy makers and economic analysts have said the cliff is really more like a slope. Chad Stone, chief economist of the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, for example, recently wrote, “A relatively brief implementation of the tax and spending changes required by current law should cause little short-term damage to the economy as a whole.”

That’s probably enough impetus for the 112th Congress to finish out its term with just a whimper and cede to its successor the chore of cleaning up the lingering fiscal mess, after the 113th Congress convenes next January 3.

If Chad Stone is correct, the world economy won’t die of suffocation, but American science could well be left wheezing. Federal agencies are already taking a conservative approach and are withholding funding for many activities until the new Congress decides which programs should be permitted to blossom and which should be allowed to wither.

Stone’s analysis notwithstanding, many economists argue that business cannot thrive in an atmosphere of continuing uncertainty and that even a fiscal slope could precipitate another recession.

If they were sufficiently science savvy, they would make the same pronouncements about the damage uncertainty can wreak on research. But most of them aren’t.

So scientists will have to take some valuable time away from their laboratories to explain how a continuing resolution will thwart new ventures and how an eight percent sequestration will seriously damage discovery and innovation. They must begin making the case to elected officials now.

But they must also begin engaging the general public. As polling has shown, apart from medicine, most Americans know little about the benefits science delivers. It’s time to start enlightening them. Not finding time to do so is the lamest of excuses.

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Editor: Alan Chodos