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Commentary | JONATHAN CHAIT

Billions for Pork as Science Is Slashed

Damn the future, the GOP wants to buy votes today.

December 31, 2004|JONATHAN CHAIT

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 conservative case.

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 Union address.

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 basis.

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 security.

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 around.

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