So, the bloodshed appears to have ended for the moment and the Dems are now in charge of both the House and the Senate. The obvious question is: “What’s in it for us? (the computing research community)” The short answer at the moment is: I dunno. Lots of questions remain unanswered about how the remainder of the 109th Congress will play out and how the 110th Congress will organize and move forward, but here are some thoughts.
The immediate legislative concern of many of us in the science advocacy community is the status of the NSF, NIST and DOE appropriations increases called for in the President’s American Competitiveness Initiative and currently tied up in the unfinished Science, State, Justice, Commerce and Energy and Water appropriations bills. The big question is whether the current congressional leadership will want to make progress on the bills in the lame-duck session starting next week, or simply punt the problems to the Democrats in the new Congress next year. The current conventional wisdom is that the GOP will probably push through a new “continuing resolution” that will continue to fund the federal government at the FY 06 levels through February 2007 and leave the challenge of passing the 11 outstanding appropriations bills to the Democratic leadership to deal with when they take over. Part of the motivation here is that the FY 07 Defense Appropriations bill passed by Congress before the election actually busted the budget caps by about $5 billion — money that would have to be found in the remaining bills.
There is some incentive for taking care of business now on both sides of the aisle, if it can be done. One reason is that these appropriations bills are, as usual, loaded with earmarks for just about every member of Congress to insure their passage. Starting the current approps process over from scratch next Congress puts those earmarks at risk. Another motivation is that the Democrats would rather not have to make the tough decisions that will be required to hit the budget caps with the current approps bills — and starting from scratch on FY 07, while simultaneously beginning the FY 08 budget process, is a lot to do.
As we’ve noted before, we would much rather Congress take care of business now — either by passing the appropriations bills individually (under “regular order”) or as part of an omnibus that preserves the ACI increases. Passing a continuing resolution and beginning the process anew in February puts all of the ACI gains we’ve worked hard for this year at risk (at least for FY 07). It does appear that Congress — or at least the Senate — will be in session for much of December working on the confirmation of Robert Gates as the new Secretary of Defense (more on that below). So there’s at least the opportunity for Congress to act during the lame-duck to finish their work on appropriations. Just not sure there’s the will.
CRA will help make the case for acting now at an event next week we’re participating in as part of the Task Force on the Future of American Innovation. You’ll recall that the Task Force released a report last year (“Benchmarks of Our Innovation Future”) that we endorsed (and actually helped produce) that helped drive much of the debate within the Administration about the need to address some of the competitiveness concerns that American universities and, increasingly, American companies were raising. We’ve updated the report for 2006, added a bit of a national security angle as well, and will be releasing it at a press conference on Thursday, Nov 16th, with some remarks by a few Washington notables (keep tuned here for details…should be worth the wait). The point of the report is to note that though the U.S. continues to hold a dominant position in the global economy, that position isn’t guaranteed and, indeed, many trends suggest it’s at risk long-term. The report highlights the importance of federal support for fundamental research as a key point in the innovation chain necessary for insuring our continued global competitiveness. We’ll use the event to call on Congress to finish their work on ACI-related issues — especially finishing the already agreed-to but not passed appropriations bills that would fund NSF, NIST and DOE. We’ll have more on the report in a few days.
The industry members of the Task Force have also once again chosen to weigh in heavily. Most recently, the Business Roundtable today ran two <a href=nice (pdf) full-page ads (pdf) — one in the Washington Post, one in the NY Times — urging Congress to act in a bipartisan way and address the outstanding competitiveness issues.
Over the longer term (at least for FY 08 and FY 09), we should be in good shape with a Democratic congress. The Democratic Innovation Agenda was very similar to what became the President’s American Competitiveness Agenda. Both are heavily influenced by the National Academies “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” report. The Democrats might place more emphasis on federal education efforts (NSF EHR) and “applied and industrial” R&D (NIST ATP and MEP) than the Republicans have, and may place more emphasis on workforce/offshoring issues, but should otherwise share a similar commitment to increasing the research budgets of NSF, NIST, NOAA, NIH and DOE.
There are, however, a few things though that could skew the picture a bit. The first is that it’s not clear exactly how Democratic priorities will impact upcoming apporpriations. While support for the federal role in fundamental research is bipartisan at the “meta” level, there are some differences at the agency level. Though the Democrats were generally supportive of the “physical sciences” thrust of the ACI, they were not as pleased with the relative deemphasis of NIH funding in the President’s plan. Because the budget environment hasn’t changed significantly — there will still not be any significant amount of “new” money in the budget — any effort to increase the relatively flat NIH budget will necissitate cuts elsewhere. Will that put other research budgets at risk?
Another potentially complicating factor is that we have no idea at this point whether the Democratic leadership will want to make significant changes to the existing committee structure — something well within their power to do. Altering how the appropriations committees are laid out, or even how the authorizing committees are assembled (what subcommittees will exist, what their jurisdictions will be), could have a substantial impact on the way science policy gets implemented in Congress. (You can see here what we thought about Republican plans to reorganize the committee structure back in ’05.)
One other change — one that has the potential to improve the computing research community’s fortunes a bit — is the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld as Sec. of Defense and the nomination of current Texas A&M University president Robert Gates to succeed him. As a close friend of the President, Gates has, for the last couple of years, been one of the people the higher-ed community has looked to often to help carry the message of the importance of federal support for fundamental research to the Administration. As a result, he should be familiar not only with our basic issues, but also have a decent familiarity with the science advocacy community here in town. Hopefully, that means he’d be a bit more open to listening to the concerns of our community than the current DOD leadership has been.
So lots of changes ahead, but much of the agenda — at least the agenda related to issues important to the computing research community — will likely remain the same. We’ll have additional updates when we have some sense of how the Democrats and GOP will choose to organize their leadership and committee structures. And we’ll provide quick updates as soon as we know anything at all about how appropriations are going to shake out.
Update: From today’s Washington Post:
Pelosi said that Democratic leaders want to demonstrate their effectiveness, and build up some trust with the White House, by tackling legislation that will have bipartisan support. Bush’s “innovation agenda,” laid out last year in his State of the Union address, has largely lain dormant. Democrats would like to take up Bush’s proposals to expand funding for basic research and alternative energy sources such as ethanol, she said.
So, that’s a good thing.
From “Reid, Pelosi Expected to Keep Tight Rein in Both Chambers.”