Congressional Elections Have Consequences for Social Science

Woodcut of Congress
Welcome to the jungle …
In 1995, the Republicans took control of both Houses of Congress for the first time since 1954. The results of the 1994 elections shifted the House from a 259-178 Democratic majority to a 230-205 Republican majority. Before the 104th Congress would end, five Democratic House members would switch parties and increase the Republican margin. The Senate went from 53-47 Democratic to 53-47 Republican.

The new GOP House majority led by Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Georgia, would make deficit reduction through the cutting of domestic discretionary spending a priority. With the switch in majority, new leadership came to the House Science Committee as Rep. Robert Walker, R-Pennsylvania, a Gingrich loyalist, replaced Rep. George Brown, D-California. This would have significant consequences for the about to be three-year old Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences (SBE) Directorate at the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Howard J. Silver
Howard J. Silver served for a quarter century as the executive director of the Consortium of Social Sciences Agencies. His blog appears monthly at Social Science Space.
Brown had been one of the key congressional boosters of the new directorate; Walker would try to eliminate it. Aside from his leadership position on the House Science panel, Walker was also a member of the House Budget Committee.  This committee produces a blueprint that is supposed to guide the appropriations committees, which make the actual spending allocations to government programs and agencies.

When the House Budget Committee, under its new Chairman Rep. John Kasich, R-Ohio, issued its report in 1995, it suggested that the SBE sciences were not “strong, fundamental science,” and therefore should not receive funding.  This was a cue for Walker, who was about to lead the Science Committee in an attempt to reauthorize, that is to provide the legal basis and suggested spending for, the National Science Foundation and its programs.

In his draft bill, he directed NSF to reduce its budget by cutting the number of its directorates by eliminating SBE.  Walker later told sociologist and social-science journalist Morton Hunt in his 1998 book, The New Know-Nothings, that he was not against the social sciences per se, since he had a master’s degree in political science and had taught the subject, but he did not believe these disciplines were as “scientific” as the natural and physical sciences.  (This would be a recurring theme in the attacks against the SBE sciences during the past 20 years, including by others who had similar credentials to Walker. More on this next time.)

Following the Budget Committee action and the early reports of Walker’s intentions, the SBE community, led by the Consortium of Social Science Associations and its members, and its allies in the scientific and higher education community, mobilized a response. New electronic means of communication, as well as the old-fashioned ones, facilitated an enormous outpouring of protest from the community to the Science Committee.  The role of the Coalition for National Science Funding, a group consisting of science and engineering associations, higher education groups, and even some industrial coalitions, was enormously important, as the community adopted “all for one” attitude.  Letters were sent from the presidents of non-social science associations, such as the American Physical Society.  The American Association for the Advancement of Science, as it had done in 1981, joined the objectors.


In 2012 at the Marketing for Scientists blog, Marc J. Kuchner asked Robert Walker about his time as chairman of the House science panel. Here’s an excerpt:
Scientists, when they do the peer review process, select some things and reject others. They say they do it on the merits. Well, the same thing is true in the legislative realm. When we’re making budget decisions, it’s not that we’re necessarily against the things that we don’t fund and so on. It’s just that they’re not the highest priority at that point. So scientists inside the scientific method do some of that same balancing, and yet they see themselves as dealing in absolutes at times rather than in dealing with a shaping of varieties. And the other thing that we tend to forget is that the fundamental basis of our democracy in the United States is adversarial. The Constitution was set up by the forefathers as an adversarial document.
For the full interview, click HERE.

The NSF leadership of Director Neal Lane (a physicist), Deputy Director Anne Petersen (a psychologist), and Assistant Director for SBE Cora Marrett (a sociologist) as well as NSF’s Office of Legislative and Public Affairs played a major role in contesting the elimination of the directorate.  They met with Chairman Walker to try and convince him that the SBE sciences were indeed an important part of the NSF’s portfolio. They also met with the leaders of the scientific community to encourage their efforts to combat Walker’s challenge.

Despite all these efforts the authorization bill emerged from the House with Walker’s SBE elimination provision. However, when the Veteran’s Affairs-Housing and Urban Development appropriations subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-California, considered the actual NSF funding bill, it refused to follow the Science Committee’s lead and would not recommend a reduction in the number of directorates or any reduction of SBE funding. This panel had also received a substantial amount of mail.

The Senate also refused to follow Walker’s position. Further limiting Walker’s impact, was the confrontation between the new GOP majority and the Clinton Administration over spending, which led to two government shutdowns.

In 1996, Walker tried again. However, he employed a new tactic, leaving the decision of which directorate to eliminate in the hands of the NSF director. This new approach did not go very far, either. In addition, Walker, who had announced that he would leave Congress at the end of 1996 (to join the lobbying profession), did not push very hard. So SBE survived.

There had been some blips concerning the social sciences between 1981 and 1995.

For example, in 1990 Sen. Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia, became quite agitated over President George H.W. Bush’s attitude toward congressional earmarking, considered sacred by the senator. He therefore announced from his perch as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee that he would eliminate funding for certain NSF economic grants, including a study that became the basis for the spectrum auction activity of the U.S. and other governments, a much cited accomplishment of NSF-funded research. Byrd claimed that these grants were administration earmarks.  He eventually gave in on the grants and the administration backed off its rhetoric on eliminating earmarking.

However, the Walker challenge was the most serious threat to the social sciences since the Reagan-Stockman proposed cuts in 1981 (see my June column). The SBE and the rest of the science community overwhelmingly responded and with help from NSF and others thwarted Walker. It offered lessons for the confrontations to come with other members of Congress who believed NSF should not be housing or funding the SBE sciences.

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Howard J. Silver

Howard J. Silver served as the executive director of the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA) in Washington, DC, from 1988 to 2013. He has testified before Congress, spoken on federal funding of science at many professional meetings, and written extensively on executive-legislative relations, the federal budget process, and science policy as it affects the social and behavioral sciences.

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