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Congress Fails Science

The Democratic majority continues a legacy of inaction



MATT COLLINS

The U.S. Congress has long been a slow and irresolute institution, especially when it comes to science issues. Unfortunately, the Democratic majority that came to power in the 2006 midterm election has so far done little to change that reputation. Nearly a year after the Democrats took over the legislative branch, America continues to escalate its emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are slowly roasting the globe. Furthermore, although Congress has proposed funding increases for many scientific agencies and national laboratories, researchers still have no reassurance that Uncle Sam will actually deliver its promised grants and budgets. Here are some highlights of how the 110th Congress has handled science measures over the past year.

Energy. Promoting energy efficiency and renewable sources is vital to curbing greenhouse gases, but as of early November Congress’s much anticipated energy bill was stuck in legislative limbo. In June the Senate passed a promising measure that would raise the fuel economy of cars and light trucks from the current average of 26 miles per gallon to 35 mpg by 2020; in August the House approved a bill that would repeal subsidies for the oil and gas industry and require utilities to produce 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources such as wind power. Unfortunately, the House and Senate bills were wildly different, and the usual process for reconciling the measures—negotiations in a House-Senate conference committee—broke down. Claiming that Senate Republicans had blocked efforts to appoint committee members, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California announced in October that Democratic leaders in the House and Senate would hammer out a compromise. In the face of veto threats from President George W. Bush, will the tough efficiency proposals survive? The chances look dim.

Global warming. As the energy bill falters, Congress has launched a parallel effort to fight global warming by proposing a “cap and trade” system for industrial polluters. Sponsored by Senators John Warner of Virginia and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, America’s Climate Security Act is aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 60 percent of current levels by 2050. Although the bill has bipartisan support, it has only just entered the legislative mill and may also face opposition from the White House.

Drug safety reform. One of the modest victories of the 2007 session was a law giving the U.S. Food and Drug Administration more power to monitor the safety of newly introduced pharmaceuticals. Spurred by the Vioxx debacle of 2004, the reform legislation enables the FDA to force drugmakers to conduct long-term studies of drugs whose side effects may not become apparent until they are in widespread use. The law also orders the pharmaceutical industry to pony up $225 million over the next five years to pay for the new safety monitoring.

Science funding. In his State of the Union address last January, President Bush announced the American Competitiveness Initiative, an ambitious plan to beef up federal funding for the physical sciences. Congress responded by significantly boosting the proposed budgets for the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. The extra money would be a particularly great boon for researchers investigating climate change, but because Congress approved the budget increases without cutting funding in other areas, President Bush is now threatening to veto the appropriations bills. Many of the proposed increases may vanish before the bills become law, and in the meantime federal agencies have to operate at last year’s funding levels.

Who’s to blame? Our government’s dismal science record for 2007 is partly the result of the political gridlock that occurs whenever one party controls Congress and the other rules the White House. Last June, for example, President Bush vetoed legislation that would have expanded federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. But some Democratic lawmakers have also obstructed progress. Representative John Dingell of Michigan, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, fought the increase in fuel economy standards proposed in the Senate’s energy bill, saying it would devastate U.S. automakers. Internal divisions among Democrats led to the current logjam on the energy issue, which must be untangled for the sake of our planet.

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