APS News

Inside the Beltway

Will the Future Mirror the Past?

by Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

I recently gave a talk at Fermi National Laboratory, and afterward someone asked me whether the outcome of the November 4 elections would have any impact on federal support for science or more generally for science policy. My pithy reply was no. But since the hour was late, I didn’t have time to elaborate. I’ll take the opportunity to do so here.

I never expect a TV rerun of Masterpiece Mystery to get an Emmy, but if the show is good theater, I find myself watching it again out of the same morbid curiosity that glued me to it the first time. I recognize all the principal players, and I know how the story will end. But I still find it riveting. That pretty much sums up my expectations for post-2014 Washington.

President Obama will still be president, and Republicans will still be running the House of Representatives in 2015 and 2016. And there will continue to be no love lost between them. So no matter which party is in control of the Senate, the next two years will likely be a replay of the past four dysfunctional ones.

The cast will be the same — although the current Senate leaders, Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in the majority, and Mitch McConnell (R-Ken.) in the minority, might be swapping roles. A grayer President Obama will still be pouting in front of his ubiquitous teleprompter; a permanently tanned House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) will be crying whenever the mood strikes him; an ageless House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will be smiling her engraved smile.

Harry Reid, a boxer in his pre-political life, will be bobbing, weaving, and jabbing at his adversaries whenever they let down their guard; and Mitch McConnell, assuming he wins re-election, will still be sporting his inscrutable Pillsbury Doughboy visage, never revealing a grain of happiness or distress.

It’s fair to say that even though the last four years epitomized dysfunction, they were not without drama. The rollout of healthcare reform might not have been as devastating as a category five hurricane, but it held the promise of utterly destroying the White House and its occupant. Of course, in the end it didn’t. But that’s what made it dramatic.

And then there was the botched attempt by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) to infiltrate the Mexican drug cartels by selling them 1,400 high-power weapons. ATF’s Operation Fast and Furious, which ultimately led to the death of Brian Terry, a U.S. Border Patrol agent, provided enough fodder for congressional critics to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt, a historical first for a Cabinet member.

There were the 50-odd times the House of Representatives voted to repeal Obamacare, or the Affordable Care Act, as it is technically known. Of course the repeal legislation was never going to make it through the Democratic-controlled Senate. And even if it did, the president was going to veto it. So the congressional healthcare dénouement was little more than a fizzle.

The actual drama took place in the edifice behind the Capitol where the Supreme Court holds court. And in the end, the survival of Obamacare came down to the single vote cast by Chief Justice John Roberts. Worries about legacies often trump ideologies.

Of course there were the battles over the budget, which resulted in a series of continuing resolutions, dramatic across-the-board sequestrations, and finally a government shutdown in October, 2013. Science was not unique in being held hostage to the political wrangling, but as an enterprise that unduly suffers from uncertainty and instability, it suffered more than many other national activities reliant on federal support.

Finally, there were the science wars that broke out in the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. Once a bastion of bipartisanship, the Committee, under the chairmanship of Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), became little more than a reflection of the hyper-partisanship that was plaguing the House at large. Smith, for whom many scientists had expressed optimism — I was one — when he first took the gavel, found their initial exuberance irrationally misplaced.

Smith seemed unable to keep members of the far right at bay as they pursued an agenda that was both anti-science and anti-scientist. Their withering attacks on the National Science Foundation (NSF) — legislatively imposing five-year lifetime limits on grantees and demanding that the Foundation turn over the confidential reviews of 50 already-approved proposals — ultimately led the Committee’s ranking member, Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.), to hold Smith accountable in a letter filled with vitriol the likes of which I have never seen in my two decades in Washington.

The Committee’s NSF reauthorization bill contained noxious language. But its energy bill was just as scientifically toxic, forbidding all federal agencies from using the results of any research supported by the Department of Energy in carrying out assessments or promulgating regulations. Of what use is science, anyway, especially when it interferes with ideology?

As the curtain falls on 2014, neither of the Committee’s anti-science initiatives stands a chance of becoming law. But when the Washington show resumes in 2015, it’s unlikely the Science, Space, and Technology Committee will give up on its assault. Unfortunately, the political dynamics will remain largely the same.

On the budget front, there is also little chance of change. There is no grand bargain in sight, and without it, spending on science will almost certainly remain constrained. The White House and congressional Republicans will continue to duke it out over support for climate research, social science research, and anything that smacks of applications. And, to the continuing distress of congressional appropriators, it’s quite possible that continuing resolutions will become the norm–unless of course the government simply shuts down.

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