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Republican Bills Declare Numbers, Science Enemy Combatants

May 1, 2013

"Reality," Stephen Colbert famously lamented to President Bush in 2006, "has a well-known liberal bias." It is conservatives' perpetual fear that the truth will not set them free that is the driving force behind two House Republican proposals announced this week. For starters, Lamar Smith (R-TX), the GOP chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, demanded Congressional review of merit-based grants awarded by the prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF). And now South Carolina Rep. Jeff Duncan has proposed eliminating the Census Bureau's economic indicators altogether.

In March, Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn introduced amendments barring the NSF from conducting political science research. Now Chairman Smith, who in November falsely charged that "we now know that prominent scientists were so determined to advance the idea of human-made global warming that they worked together to hide contradictory temperature data," has proposed legislation codifying his distrust of the scientific method:

The bill, titled the High Quality Research Act and authored by Smith, would require the director of the NSF to certify in writing that every grant handed out by the federal agency is for work that is "the finest quality, is ground breaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and ... is not duplicative of other research project being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies." The bill has not been officially introduced, but HuffPost acquired a draft copy that Smith circulated among colleagues.
The measure would also require federal officials to report back to Congress on how the NSF was implementing the new regulations. Additionally, the bill solicits recommendations for how to place similar restrictions on other federal science agencies.

But while climate change denier Lamar Smith wants the GOP to intervene in scientific research, is Republican colleague from South Carolina wants the U.S. Census Business out of the business of measuring the American economy:

The bill, introduced last week by Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), would bar the U.S. Census Bureau from conducting nearly all surveys except for a decennial population count. Such a step that would end the government's ability to provide reliable estimates of the employment rate. Indeed, the government would not be able to produce any of the major economic indices that move markets every month, said multiple statistics experts, who were aghast at the proposal.
"They simply wouldn't exist. We won't have an unemployment rate," said Ken Prewitt, the former director of the U.S. Census who is now a professor of public affairs at Columbia University.
"I don't know how the market reacts if there is suddenly no unemployment rate at the start of the month," Prewitt said. "How does the market react if we don't have a GDP [gross domestic product]?"

Of course, these efforts are just the latest Republican efforts to ensure that nonpartisan metrics that undermine GOP policies are either conveniently mended or completely ended.
If this Republican war on numbers sounds familiar, it should. In the 1990's, the GOP"s Congressional leadership led by Newt Gingrich successfully undermined and defunded another trusted nonpartisan scorekeeper, the Office of Technology Assessment. As Chris Mooney explained his classic, The Republican War on Science, Gingrich and his allies saw the destruction of the OTA as essential to their strategy of "manufacturing uncertainty" about acid rain, global warming, CFC's and so much else. It's no surprise Republicans had their knives out for what one Democratic representative described as a "defense against the dumb." When the internationally admired (and cited) OTA was finally gutted by 1996, Lord Kennet, the driving force behind Europe's own network of OTAs, could only shake his head in astonishment:

"That the leading technological state in the world, a democracy like us, could have abolished its own main means of democratic assessment left us aghast."

So it should have come as no surprise that candidate Gingrich led the GOP crusade to abolish the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) during the 2012 Republican primaries. After the CBO demolished GOP talking points by forecasting that the Affordable Care Act would reduce the national debt, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor accused the agency of "budget gimmickry." In November 2011, Newt called for the death penalty for the CBO:

"If you are serious about real health reform, you must abolish the Congressional Budget Office because it lies...Every hospital will tell you that if you get the family and patient involved, it is better and less expensive. The Congressional Budget Office refuses to see this as a savings. It wants more bureaucracy and less patient involvement."

Like Gingrich's first two marriages, the campaign to kill the CBO did not last. But that hasn't stopped Republicans from pursuing one of the important strategies for making their central policy goal--more tax cuts--a reality. That is, over three decades of experience show that the GOP's tax cuts windfalls (primarily for the wealthy) have resulted in red ink as far as the eye can see. GOP mythology notwithstanding, it is demonstrably untrue that "tax cuts pay for themselves." So, to make more tax cuts politically feasible, Congressional Republicans are demanding the CBO change how its measures their impact on both the U.S. economy and the federal budget.
That's why in 2012 and again in 2013 Republicans in Congress sought to require that the CBO use so-called "dynamic scoring" to make their budget-busting tax cuts magically work. That's why House Republicans proposed H.R. 3582 (the "Pro-Growth Budgeting Act") last year to require that the CBO estimates also use dynamic scoring to incorporate "supply-side assumptions about the growth-generating magic of tax cuts into official budget estimates, enabling conservatives to evade the deficit-boosting implications (and various congressional barriers that come along with them) of their pet proposals for reducing the tax burden of 'job creators.'" And as Politico reported in March, former Bush OMB chief turned Ohio Senator Rob Portman was able to secure the passage of an amendment asking the CBO to cook the books:

The amendment endorsed a model called "dynamic scoring," which assumes that tax cuts will pay for at least part of their cost by generating more economic activity. The measure by Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) called on CBO and the Joint Committee on Taxation to include "macroeconomic feedback scoring" in all future estimates of tax legislation.

As James Valvo, policy director at Americans for Prosperity put it, "This is something that remains important to us."
Important, with good reason. After all, to one degree or another, pretty much every major Republican tax cut scheme from Reagan in 1980, Dole in 1996 and Bush in 2000 to Mitt Romney in 2012 and Paul Ryan's "Path to Prosperity" budget have claimed that the hemorrhage of revenue for the U.S. Treasury from their massive tax cut windfalls for the wealthy would theoretically be offset by bigger collections from a supposedly surging economy. For his part, Mitt Romney went even further, telling reporters that his plan to slash taxes by 20 percent while supposedly closing loopholes couldn't be measured at all:

"So I haven't laid out all of the details about how we're going to deal with each deduction, so I think it's kind of interesting for the groups to try and score it, because frankly it can't be scored, because those kinds of details will have to be worked out with Congress, and we have a wide array of options."

Of course, for Romney and his GOP supporters, that wide array of options could not include telling the truth about his numbers. As it turned out, that smokescreen extended to his polling numbers as well. But on Election Day, Unskewed Polls wasn't about "erasing liberal bias" Colbert joked about but instead promoting conservative denial and delusion.
Now, Republicans want to make that delusion the law of the land.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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