The Circus Is Coming

by Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

When the founders of our country dreamed up the concept of checks and balances, they didn’t intend it to mean putting a police boot on the legislative vehicle. But last year, that’s what happened.

By every measure, the first session of the 112th Congress was by far the least productive in the 60 years that such record-keeping has existed. The collective activity of our elected representatives yielded passage of only 68 substantive bill–compared to well over 100 in a typical year–and of those, half merely extended existing laws.

The second session is not likely to yield more fecund fruit, especially with members up for re-election already running scared. And in 2012, the power sharing enshrined in the Constitution is liable to look more like a four-ring circus than a tripartite government.
But before we look forward, where a deck of tarot cards might be as accurate as any Inside the Beltway forecast, let’s take a look back, where we have some facts to guide us.

For science, 2011 ended with a legislative Christmas Eve gift, hardly imaginable at the beginning of the year. The draconian funding cuts threatened in January by a Republican House held hostage by a boisterous band of newly elected Tea Partisans vaporized during a series of near-death experiences for the federal bureaucracy.

Each time money was on the congressional gaming table, Speaker John Boehner’s grumpy GOP minions tried to rake it back into the House coffers, warning they would shut the government down if they didn’t get their way.

They marched to the precipice twice during the struggle over the fiscal year 2011 Continuing Resolution needed to fund the government through September of last year. They went to the brink again over extension of the debt limit, and they nearly drove the government over the cliff during consideration of the fiscal year 2012 spending bills.

Each time, they pulled back, and although they fell far short of their fiscal austerity goals, they succeeded in wringing substantial concessions from Democrats on discretionary spending and thwarting White House efforts to increase federal revenues by raising taxes on the wealthy.

The bitter wrangling over the debt ceiling culminated in the Budget Control Act (Public Law 112-25)–or technically the amendments to the 1985 Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act (Public Law 99-177)–which cleared the Senate on August 12 and immediately received President Obama’s stamp of approval. The legislation established annual discretionary spending caps that would save $917 billion over a ten-year period. It also set up a 12-member bipartisan joint select committee and charged it with finding $1.5 trillion additional in deficit reductions. If the committee failed to do so, $1.2 trillion across-the-board reductions in discretionary spending would begin on January 2, 2013.

Failure, the president said, would be an intolerable outcome. Failure, House Speaker Boehner, said would be unacceptable. Failure, Senate Majority and Minority Leaders Reid and McConnell, said was unthinkable. But in the poisoned partisan atmosphere the intolerable, unacceptable and unthinkable happened. And in a year’s time, the triggered reductions will kick in, with defense spending taking an 11-percent hit and non-defense activities, including almost all of science, looking at an 8-percent buzz cut.

For now, though, research budgets are benefiting from a small uptick, largely because last-year’s chaos and confusion allowed science champions to push the spending envelope in an unexpected way.

Here’s How It Happened:
House appropriators began their work last spring under the $1.019 trillion Ryan budget plan, $35 billion below the previous year’s spending. They completed much of their work before the ink was dry on the Budget Control Act (BCA). And although the BCA reined in discretionary spending, for fiscal year 2012, it provided $24 billion more than the Ryan budget. That proved to be a boon to Senate appropriators, who hadn’t even started their dithering until midsummer.

The Democratic Senate majority immediately seized on the unexpected largess and began filling holes in social programs, knowing that they would have to strike deals with their House counterparts during end of the year conferences. And when the conferees finally met, House appropriation subcommittee chairs, Frank Wolf (R-VA 10th) and Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ 11th), both science boosters, used the higher BCA cap to rescue the research budgets under their purview.

For fiscal year 2013, science will confront a much thornier thicket. Facing the mandated BCA reductions, every interest group will be battling to boost its favored account. And without strong advocacy, scientists should be prepared for federal spending on research and education to tumble.

This year is unlikely to see the Washington partisan atmosphere become any less toxic. President Obama is expected to use a “Republican do-nothing Congress” as his political foil. Democrats, fearful of losing control of the Senate, will focus their ire on intransigent obstructionist House Republicans. And Republicans will blast the President and congressional Democrats for fiscal irresponsibility and economic ineptitude.

In the midst of the partisan war, the Supreme Court will launch its own rocket-propelled-grenade: a judgment on the constitutionality of the individual health care mandate. P.T. Barnum would love it–a four-ring circus on the banks of the Potomac.

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

February 2012 (Volume 21, Number 2)

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Articles in this Issue
APS Membership Soars Above 50,000 Benchmark
Four Distinguished Scientists to Give Beller, Marshak Lectures
Community Weighs Pros and Cons of Physics by Press Conference
Companies Pioneer New Nuclear Designs
APS Honoree Brandon Turner Named Rhodes Scholar
APS News Picks 2011’s Top 11 Physics Headlines
2011 in Review: Policy and Budget Highlights from FYI
Foundation Marks Its Centennial at APS March Meeting
The Back Page
Members in the Media
This Month in Physics History
Inside the Beltway
Focus on APS Sections
The Educational Corner
Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science