Clinton takes the high ground over science

by Colin Macilwain

With the economy humming along through the eighth year of one of the most powerful expansions in US history, the last thing the public wants is an ugly showdown between the Democrat president and the Republican Congress over taxing and spending.

But this autumn, that is exactly what the US public is going to get, and it has become clear during the past few weeks that spending on science and technology programmes is going to be at the very heart of the hostilities.

In these times of prosperity, there isn’t a huge amount of light to shine between the economic policies of the two US political parties. But each one of them feels the need to emphasise the small differences that do exist, in advance of next year’s finely balanced elections for control of both Congress and the White House – hence the coming showdown.

The unkindest cut

The Republicans are eager to promote a tax cut as the centre of their political agenda, and need to keep a very tight grip on spending in order to finance it.

Lacking the will to cut the really expensive programmes, such as pensions or defence, they have been forced to nominate some rather puny cuts to science and technology in next year’s budget – a couple of hundred million dollars each at various agencies and, most strikingly, $1bn at the usually unassailable NASA.

These proposals barely registered with the public when they were first made, in July. However, President Clinton, with all his customary political zeal, has decided to pounce on them, so as to portray his Republican opponents as both parsimonious and negligent of America’s future. Last week, John Podesta, his chief-of-staff, was sent out on a mission to savage the Republican proposals as `playing politics with science and technology’ in order to `make room for their risky tax plan’.

The Republicans, Podesta told the banks of otherwise-idle TV cameras at Washington’s National Press Club, `are threatening the potential progress of innovation in America’.

The attack was nicely timed: the Republicans are out of town, selling their tax cut to a sceptical and complacent public, and they will return to Washington this week in some disarray about how best to proceed.

Punch drunk

They’ve been in this position before – haplessly walking into the president’s punches during the annual budget negotiations – but this year they seem to lack either visible leadership or any form of ammunition for a counter-attack.

There is no clamour in the US for a tax cut which is widely seen as benefiting the wealthy, and little public appetite for painful pruning of branches of the government.

The science and technology programmes selected for cuts by the Congress – which include technology support for small businesses, new research into supercomputer applications, and an array of NASA activities related to Earth science and space science – will remain in danger until Clinton and the Congress finally agree to a budget this October.

But their supporters are now quietly confident that Clinton, playing his usual deft game with an uncommonly good hand of cards, will restore funding to them all.

Copyright: Centaur Communications Limited