APS News

Inside the Beltway

New Directions or More of the Same


by Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

January 3 has often been an eventful day. On that date in 1825, Rensselaer College opened its doors to the first engineering class in the United States. Ninety-nine years later, Howard Carter, a British explorer, discovered the sarcophagus of the Boy Pharaoh, King Tut, near Luxor, Egypt. And in 1973, CBS divested itself of the New York Yankees, selling the team to George Steinbrenner and his associates for $10 million.

Today, Forbes Magazine pegs the Yankees’ worth at $2 billion; Tutankhamun exhibitions continue to draw extraordinary crowds around the world; and economists attribute as much as 70 percent of America’s current economic growth to the STEM fields–science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

This year, January 3 marks the beginning of the 113th Congress. And just how it will be eventful is still in doubt. During the next two years, 535 elected members of the House and Senate will have a choice certain: to foster economic growth by investing in scientific discovery and innovation or to perpetuate an ideological stalemate that peddles our nation’s future prospects for a fire sale price.

Regardless of any deals Congress and the White House strike on taxes and entitlements (Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security), the nasty fight between Democrats and Republicans over reducing discretionary spending is likely to continue for the next two years. The president may have the public wind at his back on taxing the rich and minimizing damage to the social safety net, but polling suggests that the public wants to see deficit spending reined in and growth in the national debt significantly constrained.

And those public sentiments resonate well with conservatives who want to slash the size and scope of the federal government. President Obama won a second term with a four percent majority margin in the popular vote and a 332 to 206 margin in the Electoral College. And Democrats extended their effective majority in the Senate to 55-45. But Republicans retained control of the House of Representatives with a 34-vote cushion (pending a special election in the 2nd district in Illinois compelled by Jesse Jackson Jr.’s unexpected resignation). And the GOP majority, its shrinking band of moderates having shrunk even further at the 2012 ballot box, tilts more to the right in the new Congress than it did in the last one.

During the last two years, with overt or threatened obstructionism, Tea Party ideologues severely constrained House Speaker John Boehner’s ability to negotiate with the White House and a Democratically controlled Senate, especially on budgetary matters. Their tactics nearly pushed our nation into default, arguably leading to a rating downgrade of U.S. treasury bonds. And their opposition to compromise forced repeated stalemates over spending with determined Democrats in the Senate.

In an attempt to contain the obstructionism, the House Republican leadership announced last month that it was booting three far-right ideologues off prime committees. After Speaker Boehner pulled rank, rank-and-file public reaction remained muted. But inside sources warned that the rebellious rabble is not likely to refrain from its rousing rhetoric once serious budget negotiations get under way.

Most Capitol Hill observers believe Mr. Boehner will continue to have trouble corralling enough votes from his Republican minions for any compromises with the White House, and he will have to reach across the aisle to attract support from Democrats to seal any deal. But to achieve success, he will have to deliver a performance worthy of an Olympic gold medalist on the balance beam.

For most of the lame duck session that ended last month, Washington was consumed by dire predictions of what would happen to the American economy if the Bush era tax cuts expired on December 31 and sequestrations mandated by the Budget Control Act took effect on January 1. Left almost unsaid throughout the escalating angst was the fallout of a possible impasse over the debt ceiling, which Congress will have to raise to avoid yet another threat of default.

With few arrows left in their political quiver, Republicans have threatened to hold the nation’s credit worthiness hostage unless the White House agrees to reductions in discretionary spending, which they say are needed to assure the nation’s solvency in the long term. It is far too soon to predict how the budgetary wrangling will play out, but science, along with all non-defense discretionary spending, may be in for a period of austerity.

Just over two years ago, the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles Commission on fiscal responsibility, which President Obama had established by executive order in early 2010, provided a 10-year blueprint for deficit reduction.

The commission’s plan, which failed on the altar of partisanship, called for one dollar of new revenue for every three dollars of spending cuts. But, recognizing the significance of science in spurring economic growth, it declared that research and education should be exempt from the discretionary budget scalpel.

By all accounts, the White House has accepted that proposition. It is time for Congress to do the same.


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Editor: Alan Chodos
Staff Science Writer: Michael Lucibella