Original URL LA Times
Billions for Pork as Science Is Slashed
By Jonathan Chait
The Los Angeles Times
Friday 31 December 2004
Damn the future, the GOP wants to buy votes today.
Does cutting taxes force Congress to spend less money? So far under
President Bush, the answer has been a resounding no. Now there's some
evidence that Congress actually may be tightening the purse strings.
Unfortunately, what it has done so far doesn't exactly prove the
The new evidence is that Congress voted last month to cut the
budget for the National Science Foundation, or NSF, which supports
basic scientific research. This means that next year the NSF will have
about 1,000 fewer research grants. This comes at a time when scientific
experts worry that the United States is losing its worldwide primacy in
science and technology.
Now, some of you righties may be saying to yourselves, "Great! We
scaled back another big government program." But, remember, Republicans
over at least the last decade have flaunted their support of science
and technology. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich used to go on about
dinosaur research and giving poor people laptop computers. Bush grandly
promised a new mission to land humans on Mars in his last State of the
And the GOP commitment to science, at least until recently, very
much included the NSF. Two years ago, the Republican Congress voted to
double the foundation's budget by 2007. At the time, Fred Barnes of the
Weekly Standard wrote that the White House considered the NSF to be one
of the few "programs that work." Its grants go out on a competitive
Mitch Daniels, then Bush's budget director, told Barnes that the
NSF "has supported eight of the 12 most recent Nobel Prize awards
earned by Americans at some point in their careers."
Still, you say, don't we face a huge deficit now? Indeed we do, but
cutting support for scientific research is an incredibly mindless way
to solve that problem. Deficits are bad because they represent a form
of borrowing against the future. Every dollar we spend beyond our means
today is one less dollar that we'll have to spend someday down the
road. But scientific research is an investment in future prosperity.
Cutting the NSF budget is like a family in debt pulling its children
out of college but keeping its country club membership.
And this turns out to be utterly typical of the way conservatives
practice fiscal restraint. Their strategy of "starving the beast" -
trimming down government by depriving it of revenue - is not supposed
to chop down spending per se; it's supposed to get rid of waste. As it
happens, though, waste has flourished while Washington has sacrificed
lots of necessary spending.
The former category includes big programs such as the $180 billion
in agricultural subsidies Bush approved in 2001, or last year's
Medicare bill featuring tens of billions in subsidies for healthcare
industries. It also includes garden variety pork, such as money for the
Punxsutawney (Pa.) Weather Museum or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in
Cleveland. (Both projects were deemed vital in the same budget that
trims the NSF.)
The NSF is not the only worthwhile project that has gotten stiffed.
It's not even the only project that conservatives consider worthwhile
that has gotten stiffed.
Crucial aspects of homeland security - such as inspecting incoming
ships for nuclear material and hiring enough immigration agents to
track down illegal immigrants from the Middle East - are getting far
less than needed to ensure that Americans are protected from terrorism.
Even the denizens of the conservative Heritage Foundation have
complained about the Bush administration's stinginess on homeland
Why are bad programs driving out the good? Because budget pressure,
the pressure of the deficit by itself, does not guarantee that Congress
will make good choices. The Republicans' preferred plan, which we've
seen through Bush's first four years, is to say yes to everybody: tax
cuts and spending programs can buy a lot of votes. If they must cut
back, they'll keep the programs that help Republicans win election,
including the home-state pork, and cut out virtuous programs that don't
have the same political muscle. Like the NSF.
Of course, this isn't an unalterable law of nature. If the
governing party has some sense of responsibility, it will fund programs
on the basis of the national interest rather than on the basis of which
ones have the most powerful lobby.
That's what President Reagan's budget director, David Stockman,
said he was doing when he promised to go after "weak claims, not weak
clients." By that he meant he would try to cut out programs with a
shaky rationale, not those that merely lacked powerful backers in
Washington. The GOP's operating principle today is just the other way
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