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Inside the Beltway

Guns, Salsa and Butter

by Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

What do gun control and immigration reform have to do with science budgets? Your reflexive response is probably little or none. But let me put on my optimist’s hat, which admittedly has seen little wear in the last few years, and pose a political dynamic that could tie them together.

I’ll begin with the context. Two sound bites capture the moment: polarization and deafness. The first needs little elaboration. You see it whenever you tune into Fox News or MSNBC, the echo chambers of the right and the left.

But if you really want analytical evidence, you can find it in Nate Silver’s New York Times blog, “Five Thirty Eight.” In his Dec. 28, 2012 posting, Silver documents the dramatic shrinkage of competitive House races during the course of the last 20 years. In 1992, he notes there were 103, but in 2012, only 35.

Today, a House Republican is far more likely to lose incumbency to a primary challenger from the right than to a centrist Democrat in a general election. And although the average Democrat does not feel quite as exposed to a primary from the left, the lingering existential threat deters significant movement toward a collaborative center.

If you’re seeking the cause of the disjoint electoral map, you need look no further than the combination of district gerrymandering and geographic sorting out of the two major parties.

But enough about polarization: let’s turn to deafness. Well before the 2012 election, Congress’ approval rating was tanking, although Republicans had a slight advantage in the race to the bottom.

But the polling data did little to reduce the hyper-partisanship that was tying Washington up in dysfunctional knots. For reasons I just described, incumbents on both sides of the aisle simply had no incentive to compromise. They remained deaf to a growing public drumbeat for a return to effective government.

Gerrymandering did not afford a divided electorate–disaffected though it might be–much opportunity to spank House members standing for re-election for their lack of productivity and partisan intransigence. But the presidential and senatorial races provided another forum, and Democrats, with their slightly higher favorability, capitalized on the advantage, retaining the White House and adding two seats in the Senate.

Since the last election, a number of prominent Republicans have begun to question their party’s strategy of uncompromising adherence to staunchly conservative principles in the face of a growing public clamor for compromise. Whether the GOP will modify its stolid stance remains a matter of speculation, but simply the possibility of a posture change is providing fulsome fodder for the likes of Rush Limbaugh on the right and Rachel Maddow on the left.

Guns and salsa may give us a glimpse of the future. Here’s why.

In April, conservative Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and moderate Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia collaborated on gun control legislation that garnered the nod of 50 Democrats, 16 Republicans and 2 Independents on a motion to allow the bill to reach the Senate floor. A threatened filibuster vaporized completely. And even though the billed failed on the floor, bipartisanship–which only a few months earlier had been a poison political pill–assumed an aura of respectability.


Such budding propriety might gain further traction if the fully bipartisan “Senate Gang of Eight” succeeds in crafting a comprehensive immigration reform bill that addresses the festering sore of 11 million undocumented immigrants, many of them who entered our nation illegally from Mexico. Although partisanship could still derail the legislation, the current Senate air augurs well for its success. And if it bipartisan achievement becomes the 2013 buzzword, science could be a major beneficiary.

On April 10, President Obama released his budget request for fiscal year 2014. It was more than nine weeks late, but for science enthusiasts it was worth the wait. The presidential budget proposed not only restoration of the recent across-the-board sequestrations, but also significant increases for most research programs. In the hyper-partisan world of the last two years, that proposal would be declared dead on arrival by the Republican House leadership.

But only two months before the president submitted his request, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia had told an American Enterprise Institute audience, “…there is an appropriate role and a necessary role for the federal government to ensure funding for basic medical research.” Amplifying on the theme, he said, “Scientific breakthroughs are the result of, and have helped contribute to, America’s being the world’s capital of innovation and opportunity in nearly every field.”

If “bipartisanship” disappears from the Washington dictionary of expletives, if Republicans take their cue from Eric Cantor and if Democrats embrace the president’s call to scientific arms, 2013 could become a watershed year for an enterprise that has been dying of fiscal thirst far too long.

Delivering the message that “Science Matters” to elected officials and, more importantly, to the public at large must become a priority for every scientist. A window is beginning to open. Let’s not close it.



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Editor: Alan Chodos
Staff Science Writer: Michael Lucibella