ASEE PRISM - Feb 2001
on politics
Not so divided we stand

By Kenneth T. Walsh

Kenneth T. WalshAmerica's political schism runs wide and deep. Not only did voters split almost evenly between George W. Bush and Al Gore in the presidential election on November 7, they sent to Washington a House of Representatives with only a wafer-thin Republican majority and a Senate that is split 50-50 between the GOP and the Democrats. Vice President Dick Cheney will have a  busy time following developments on Capitol Hill so he can break any ties, and he will of course take the side of fellow Republicans.
Making matters worse in terms of finding compromise, many Democrats remain bitter about Bush's disputed victory in Florida and the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 decision that ended official recounts in the Sunshine State. Division seems to be the order of the day.

Illustration by Charles AkinsBut there may be a ray of hope. Issues involving science and technology were not subject to heated debate during the campaign, and they may offer one of a handful of areas where most politicians can find common ground. Sources close to President Bush say he will move to consolidate support and pass bills where he can score a few early wins this year, and that could mean a big push on the science and technology front, in addition to modest steps toward education reform and increased federal activism to improve failing schools. A lot will depend on whether Bush's science and technology advisers are key players in the decision-making process at the White House, or are relegated to the policy-making hinterlands.

Signs of a slowdown in the economy could help make the case for at least part of the science and technology agenda. "A large part of the basis for the increase in productivity—which has been a big part of the good economy we've had in recent years—is because of research and development," says Representative Rush Holt, a New Jersey Democrat and a physicist by training. "I will continue to argue that point, as will others, including Chairman [Alan] Greenspan" of the Federal Reserve Board.
As a result of such arguments, there is at least a good chance that Congress will boost spending for R&D as a solid investment in the future. Holt and Representative Heather Wilson, a New Mexico Republican, have co-sponsored a bill to double nonmilitary investment in R&D over 10 years—a measure that passed the Senate in 2000 but wasn't taken up in the House. Chances are that the legislation's prospects will be brighter in 2001, and President Bush is likely to go along with at least some level of increase, his advisers say.
Tennessee Republican Bill Frist, one of Bush's key strategists in the Senate and a specialist in science and technology issues, agrees that the environment for R&D may improve. Frist, who was a surgeon before entering politics, will once again push his bill to greatly increase R&D spending—aiming to raise the R&D portion of the federal discretionary budget from just below 7 percent, or $40 billion, to 10 percent over the next decade. Frist will also emphasize ways to protect privacy on the Internet, an issue of rising concern on Capitol Hill, although it's unclear what legislation might emerge.

As a former Texas oilman, Bush is a fan, specifically, of R&D in the energy sector, but the extent of his commitment is unclear. "All signs suggest we are overdue in turning our attention to research and development in energy," Holt told Prism. "It had a big push between 25 and 20 years ago, and hasn't had a similar level of attention since." That's changing, mostly because of high costs for fuel oil in the Northeast this winter, and recent electricity shortages in California. Bush has also talked about the need to free up U.S. oil and natural gas reserves for development, to limit dependence on foreign energy sources. But his aides say he will give energy R&D a fresh look.

Another area for possible action is making the R&D tax credit permanent to encourage research and development in the private sector. During the campaign Bush supported this idea, arguing that it would help companies plan more effectively over the long term. (In 1999, Congress extended the tax credit for five years.) Bush also endorsed an increase in defense R&D spending by at least $20 billion from fiscal 2002 to 2006.

Just as important, Bush and Congress will grapple with the issue of an Internet sales tax. One big question is how much Internet commerce may be harming mainstream businesses, a big concern in many congressional districts regardless of party label. This issue is far from being resolved.

On other matters, the early signals from Bush have caused worry among legislators who favor a new emphasis on science and technology. "I have some concern in one area—global climate change," Holt says. "George W. Bush seems to say this is not an area of research but an area of politics, that this is a claim with a basis in politics rather than in research. I find that a little troubling."

Finally, Bush is raising hackles by continuing to support a multi-billion-dollar missile defense system that critics have dubbed a modern-day Maginot Line that won't work and may destabilize relations with both allies and adversaries. But both the new president and incoming Secretary of State Colin Powell say they are committed to the project.

The outlook, in short, is mixed, but promising.


Kenneth T. Walsh is chief White House correspondent
for U.S. News & World Report.