ATP: All Alone In a GOP Forest

The Advanced Technology Program is ripe for Republican attack -- and the Democrats seem ill-prepared to protect it

Administration officials are scrambling to defend their technology development programs, but their only weapons seem to be an education campaign and a survey of economic gains due to be released early next year.

The administration's first move in this campaign may have been to shoot its own foot.

Consider this: On Dec. 2, the Commerce Department announced a $185 million program to foster motor vehicle manufacturing technologies; $160 million to study catalysis and biocatalysis methods; $145 million for materials processing for heavy manufacturing; $125 million on digital data storage technology research; $120 million to develop interoperable digital video for information networks; and $50 million to develop more efficient, quiet and compact air-conditioning and refrigeration systems.

It is unclear, at least to Republicans, why taxpayers need to spend $50 million on new refrigeration technologies. And critics question why the computer or auto manufacturing industries, which are arguably having one of their best years ever, need federal grants for research.

Most likely to lead the Republican charge against the Advanced Technology Program are Reps. John Kasich, the new chairman of the House Budget Committee, and Robert Walker, who will head up the science committee.

During Congressional debate over the ATP in 1993, Walker tried to cut back funding for the program, which, ironically, began as a Republican initiative under the Bush administration. "I am less than enthusiastic about some of the plans where they have moved toward becoming the front of national industrial programs - the ATP programs and some things of that type. I would rather divert some of the monies that are headed in that direction toward the core programs" of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, such as standards-setting, Walker said last week.

So Republican officials -- on both ideological and fiscal grounds -- have tagged ATP as one possible program worthy of the ax. A sister program at the Advanced Research Projects Agency known as the Technology Reinvestment Project will also face scrutiny -- and sooner rather than later. GOP leaders plan to generate immediate savings by cutting the 1995 budget, passed earlier this year by the Democratic Congress. The 1995 budget rescission will be voted on in early January, Republicans say. Bruce Cuthbertson, a spokesman for Kasich, declined to say if they would cut ATP's 1995 budget, but added "everything is on the table."

But even before the Republican Congress reviews the program, the ATP is unlikely to escape budget cuts now being proposed by President Clinton. Commerce officials declined to say how much funding the administration would request for the program for 1996. The original Clinton plan had called for a $543 million budget request for fiscal year 1996, which would be a $112 million increase from 1995 funding.

To save the programs, "we have to educate... [and] we'll need all the help we can get," said Mary Good, the Commerce Department's undersecretary of technology. The administration's technology programs are needed to get the most out of the government's annual research spending, and will produce benefits well worth the investment, she said.

To help gather ammunition for ATP's defense, Good has commissioned a study of ATP's economic benefits so far. The survey, being conducted by Clarksville, Md.-based Silber & Associates, will examine the nearly 100 projects the ATP funded in its first four competitions to try to find spin-off benefits, such as industry cost savings from shared research and the development of strategic partnerships that resulted from the projects, ATP chief George Uriano said. Survey results are due in late February. One ray of hope for the ATP may come in the Senate, where Montana's Republican Sen. Conrad Burns may replace Sen. John D. Rockefeller as chair of the Senate's subcommittee on science and technology and space. Burns supported the program in debates earlier this year, but "it's still premature" to talk about his polices for 1995, spokeswoman Susan Zimmerman said.

Rockefeller is not optimistic. "Unless a greater case is made for their importance, we may very soon see the rug pulled out from [under] those programs -- the Advanced Technology grants, the Technology Reinvestment Program, the Manufacturing Extension Centers, and others."

"The Clinton administration has a lot to try and defend next year against the Republicans. The ATP is not the place to draw a line in the sand," said Tom Miller, director of economic policy at the conservative think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute, based in Washington, D.C.

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