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  • David is a Deputy News Editor specializing in coverage of science policy, energy and the environment.
 

Science Gets a Cameo in U.S. Shutdown Vote

17 October 2013 4:00 pm
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U.S. House of Representatives

End of debate. The U.S. House of Representatives votes on Wednesday night to end the partial U.S. government shutdown.

As lawmakers in Congress debated a way out of the 16-day U.S. government shutdown, some cited its impact on science to make their point.

Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), chair of the Senate commerce and science committee, argued that the shutdown needed to end because it was giving foreign competitors a boost. “Just because House Republicans have shuttered the research arm of our government does not mean that overseas competitors such as China are pausing their research as well,” he said.

On the other side of the Capitol, Representative Chaka Fattah (D-PA), the top Democrat on a House spending panel that oversees several science agencies, also raised international concerns. This past Monday, he noted, “I was in the State of Israel. I met with the President and with a whole group of brain researchers from around the world. They had difficulty understanding, given our Nation's leadership on so many critical issues, that we could be in a paralyzed situation.”

Senator Mike Lee (R-UT), who unsuccessfully opposed the bipartisan deal to end the shutdown, had a different take. “This is Washington at its worst,” he said. “The Washington establishment can't bring itself to believe this is why Congress's approval rating is so low—because Washington doesn't listen to the American people. It ignores them. And when the American people can no longer be ignored, the administration shuts down national parks … and holds hostage critical funding for cancer research. … It is shameful how Washington treats the American people, and the people are right to be upset about it.”

“The media keeps asking, was it worth it?” Lee continued. “My answer is it is always worth it to do the right thing. Fighting against an abusive government in defense of protecting the individual rights and freedoms of the American people is always the right thing.”

Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) highlighted the shutdown’s economic impacts in his state, home to the Department of Energy’s Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories. The two labs employ “18,000 New Mexicans as contractors. … That is out of 2 million people,” he noted. “So it is an understatement to say that shutting down the Federal Government strikes at the heart of my State's economy.”

Heinrich also worried about New Mexico's “first-rate research institutions,” which “rely heavily on Federal grants to fund staff, training, and projects, including clinical trials for cancer treatment. I am told those trials—and years of hard work—will have to pause or even stop if the government stays closed. Scientists will see their salaries reduced, and research students who want to dedicate their lives to finding the next cure will have to wait even longer just to earn their degree.”

The day before the decisive vote, Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), threw a rhetorical double-punch, linking concerns about home-state and international impacts in a plea to end the shutdown.  Some “97 percent of NASA employees in Cleveland and Sandusky in northern Ohio have been furloughed,” he noted, while Ohio’s academic scientists were worried about their grants. “If you are a research scientist … [and] see these interruptions, if you are furloughed for 3 weeks in October 2013 and then again some time next year … the most talented researchers are going to walk away, and we are going to lose so much of the edge we have in this country.”

The same day, Representative Jared Huffman (D-CA) launched a highly partisan attack, accusing Republicans of spurring a “3-week bout with insanity,” and offering some sardonic advice. “I have a suggestion,” he said. “Admit that this scorched-Earth politics of obstruction—this war against the very government that you were sent here to govern—is a bad idea. Let us vote on solutions to end this crisis. We don't even need an apology for all of the damage you’ve caused. … We don't need you to apologize for halting lifesaving research, for any of that. … Just let us vote to end this crisis.”

Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who leads the Senate Appropriations Committee, tried a more moderate yesterday appeal as her colleagues prepared to vote. “America is a middle-of-the-road nation,” she said. “We need an environment where the middle speaks, where the middle class now speaks and says: Please represent me, meet our national security needs. … Please make public investments in research and development that will create new ideas for the new jobs in the new economy of the 21st century. This is what they want us to be able to do.”

Hours later, both bodies voted to end the shutdown, and put off—at least for a little while—the next battle over the nation’s spending policies.