White House, GOP Clashing on Science

Predictably, a number of policy issues divide the two parties - but compromise is possible, say Republicans and Democrats

he Republican Congress says it will increase the nation's spending on science and technology, but in classic GOP fashion - with tax breaks, relaxed regulations and legal reform.

And another hand will taketh away, as government-sponsored research programs will likely shrink, says Rep. Robert S. Walker, the new chairman of the House Committee on Science.

"There is nothing in (Republican plans) that would cut science... I want to see science resources in the totality of the country expand," Walker announced after leading a three-hour hearing with a panel of top administration officials, including Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and NASA administrator Daniel Goldin.

As a close ally of House speaker Newt

Gingrich, and as No. 2. man on the policy-setting House Budget Committee, Walker is well-positioned to shape the nation's technology policy. To succeed, Walker will have to win debates on four critical issues; science funding, risk assessment, legal reform, and the Commerce Department's technology promotion programs. All four issues provoked disputes during the Jan. 6 hearing, as Clinton administration officials argued the new Republican policies that call for $200 billion in budget cuts over the next five years, freezing science research, gutting government-sponsored research funding, and crippling the transfer of technology to production plants.

The government spends about $70 billion on science research and development efforts, about 58 percent of it going to the Department of Defense.

If Republican cost-cutting policies are adopted, "this nation might find itself in a wholescale, devastating retreat" from scientific leadership, said Jack Gibbons, the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Republican budget plans will wreck many science programs, likely reducing the National Science Foundation's annual $3.2 billion budget by 50 percent, he said.

The Republican proposal to cut the Commerce Department's technology programs, including the high-visibility Advanced Technology Program intended to foster long-term, risky research "would be tantamount to unilateral disarmament," said Commerce Secretary Ron Brown. "The marketplace will not invest sufficient resources in the mid- and the long term... they want something they can feel and touch, that will move quickly," he said.

The plank in the Republican Contract With America that urges reform of risk-assessment guidelines used to regulate research will "freeze scientific progress and unnecessarily delay actions needed to protect the public health of our children and neighborhoods," said Carol Browner, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. However, "the administration would support risk assessment legislation that [is] fair, effective, and affordable," she said.

But Walker and other Republicans held firm, presaging a tough fight whose outcome is uncertain because of numerous players; the Senate, whose decisions will be strongly influenced by moderate Republicans and Democrats, the White House's veto power, and industry, which has argued in favor of Republican tax breaks and deregulation.

In answer to arguments that Republican budget-cutters will derail technology spending, Walker said Republicans would propose a menu of tax breaks, spending programs and deregulation that will increase overall science spending by government and industry.

For example, Congress should eliminate taxes on products made in space, he said. By implementing the tax break, "you will totally change the psychology," vastly boosting private investment in space, he said. Also, "a capital-gains tax cut is vastly more important" in boosting the venture-funded biotech-industry than any government spending program, he said. With top-level support from Gingrich and others for science spending, Republican leaders should be able to boost the nation's science efforts, said Walker. But "the difficulty would be if the administration came forward with a host of science cuts [in the 1996 budget request, which] would make it very difficult for me to defend programs" in budget-cutting debates, he said.

One government giveaway that seems destined for cuts is the Commerce Department's ATP program, which "has wandered well beyond its mandate" of generic-technology development, Walker said.

Companies, including many large corporations, use ATP funds to pay for research they would otherwise do themselves, he said. "We have to get out of thinking of [technology development] as government activities," he said. Wisconsin Rep. James Sensenbrenner used the hearing to press for legal reforms to aid high-tech investment by trimming lawyer language and costs.

"Some type of legal reform is necessary if we are to keep our technological edge," he said, echoing a Contract With America proviso to cap non economic damages - a requirement that losers in civil suits pay all legal costs - and a requirement at-fault firms only pay a proportionate share of damages in a lawsuit with many parties.

After Brown replied that law reform should be studied carefully before any changes be made, Sensenbrenner countered that "the time for study is over. The time for action is now."Behind the disputes, there is a core of agreement that science and technology must be boosted by a mix of government reform, tax-breaks and spending programs, say administration officials.

For example, NASA administrator Goldin asked for Walker's help in cutting NASA's infrastructure costs by 50 percent over the next few years. "We are going to need your support to do some very tough things," he said. According to Gibbons, the administration is seeking to make permanent the now temporary investment-tax credit, and has proposed a tax break for capital gains earned over the long term.

And Secretary Brown reassured Walker that "in many respects, we are on the same wavelength... I'd like to work with you, and work on you," over the coming months of debate.

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