Congress is filled with informal caucuses, from the Black Caucus to the Wine Caucus. I have a new one to propose, which might be among the largest: the Yahoo Caucus.
I actually began to think about this group last year, when Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Fla. (yes, that is really his name), tried to eliminate the Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey. ACS is a critically important source of data, by neighborhood, that businesses, manufacturers, retailers, home builders, and local governments use to make critical decisions. The survey provides data on local labor markets, traffic patterns, crime, income, poverty, and countless other areas. It tells businesses the best place to open plants, locate stores, or build homes; tells local governments where and when to place police and firefighting forces; informs emergency planners about disaster preparation; and on and on. Eliminating it would be colossally stupid and counterproductive—but what placed Webster on the Yahoo list was his comment at the time: “This is not a scientific survey, it is a random survey.” Ouch. Webster has been superseded by Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., who wants to eliminate all funding for all census surveys other than the big one every decade.
Another charter member of the caucus is Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., who famously said last year that evolution, embryology, and the "big bang" theory were “lies straight from the pit of hell.” Naturally, Broun is a senior member of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. A new member of the caucus is the chairman of that committee, Lamar Smith, R-Texas, a smart guy (intelligence is not the determining factor here) who this week floated the notion of having every science grant application at the National Science Foundation pass a key hurdle--explaining how the idea would directly benefit the American people. This went beyond the previous efforts by many Yahoos to defund all political science grants to attack grants in every scientific area, social and hard sciences alike, and ultimately make the peer-review process, the linchpin of scientific enterprise, superfluous. Some of the most significant scientific research projects started as out-of-the-box, “wild-eyed ideas” whose immediate benefit to the broader public would not be evident for decades. What a great idea to have Congress vet the ideas instead of scientific peers.
But the largest class of Yahoos is the group of lawmakers ardently supporting the sequester now hitting a range of government policies and programs.
In the weeks leading up to the implementation of the sequester, a steady stream of House Republicans expressed their eagerness to bring it on. House Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy said, “This may be the only way we get real spending cuts over the next year.” Budget Chairman Paul Ryan said, “The sequester is going to happen.” Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana said, “The consensus is that we want the sequester numbers to come in and finally see spending reduced in Washington.” Rep. Scott DeJarlais of Tennessee said, “Sequestration needs to happen.”
For every lawmaker like Sens. John McCain or John Thune, who fretted about mindless cuts in defense (while saying nothing about mindless cuts in domestic programs), there were 10 House Republicans who were happy with budget cuts; they did not care where they came from or how they were implemented.
And that is where my disdain is especially focused. From the failure of the super committee forward, to the alarm by House Republicans that some of their Senate counterparts might endorse a plan to raise revenues and make cuts in the growth of Social Security and Medicare, it has become clear that reducing debt is not the real priority here. Cutting government is. But it is not a careful or reasoned effort to create a leaner and meaner government, focused on priorities, operating efficiently and solving problems prudently. It is instead a slash-and-burn approach that reflects a combination of extreme ideology and extreme ignorance, an ardent belief in cutting government without knowing or caring what government is.
Basic research is especially endangered. Here is the reality: Basic research is the fundamental building block for American ingenuity and creativity, as well as our unsurpassed role as the globe’s innovators. In the Mad Men era, Ma Bell could create and fund Bell Labs as a prestigious loss leader, and let other companies turn the research product into commercial ventures. Those days are long gone. No company will spend money on something that has no immediate payoff, hits the next quarter’s profits, and may be exploited by other companies down the road. Only government can do the basic research work that has an enormous long-term payoff for society.
The defense sequester exempts military personnel and focuses on civilian employees at the Defense Department—and DARPA, the brilliant agency that spearheaded the development of the Internet and has created many other valuable innovations, will suffer as a consequence. At the National Institutes of Health, the sequester will be devastating to new research grants. As Elias Zerhouni, the former head of NIH, has pointed out, the grants are usually for five years, rolled over each year. So a 10 percent cut overall in research grants could mean a 50 percent cut in new grants. NIH, the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the National Science Foundation and the Food and Drug Administration have already seen their budgets shaved over several years of pressure on discretionary spending, which have grant funding levels at roughly those of the Eisenhower era. For new and emerging scientists aspiring to careers in medical research, NIH grants are critical—many are already discussing changing their career paths or going to a place like Singapore, which is stepping up with ample sums to attract our best and brightest. The impact of the cuts is equally damaging for medical schools, teaching hospitals, and universities.
So for lawmakers who stampeded in to make sure the flights back to their districts would run on time by shifting funds to air-traffic controllers from airport improvement and construction--while blithely cheering on cuts in research--welcome to Yahoo Land.
Norm Ornstein is a contributing editor at National Journal and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.