Department of Commerce Encounters Tough Going in Congressional Hearings

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Publication date: 
10 March 1995

It quickly became clear during House and Senate hearings this week
on the Department of Commerce that its budget request is going to
be slashed.  The extent to which this will affect the core programs
at the National Institute of Standards and Technology has yet to be
seen, but it appears a near certainty that the Advanced Technology
Program (ATP) is going to come under heavy fire.

One need look no further than the March 9 opening statement of
House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich (R-Ohio) who told
Secretary Ronald Brown that Commerce is "a department that
Republicans have in their cross hairs."  While praising Brown for
his overseas trade work, Kasich said that many of the department's
programs were duplicated elsewhere in the federal government or
private sector.  He quickly turned to direct criticism of ATP,
declaring "I don't like corporate welfare."  Kasich presented a
large chart entitled "What do these companies have in common?",
which listed eight major high technology corporations, then
answered, "Grants from the Department of Commerce."  While the ATP
was created during a Republican Administration, Kasich said, "they
were dead wrong," declaring, "I'm going to go after" this.

Secretary Brown defended ATP as a means of ensuring the
"development of early-stage, precompetitive civilian technologies,"
adding in his prepared testimony that the program amounts to 0.5%
of federal R&D funding.  Until corporations start investing more
heavily in R&D, Brown said, there is a need for ATP. 

Vice Committee Chairman Bob Walker (R-Pennsylvania) questioned if
ATP was more important than the NIST core program, since a much
larger percentage budget increase was requested.  Brown said ATP
was not more important, explaining its historical funding level was
almost "zero."  Walker was not satisfied with Brown's reply, later
saying, "that's the real question, that's the real debate."

On March 6, Chairman Phil Gramm (R-Texas) of the Senate Commerce,
State, Justice Appropriations Subcommittee held a brief hearing on
the department's FY 1996 budget request.  His questions focused on
programs such as ATP and the Manufacturing Extension Partnership,
which he said were "aimed at moving the government into the
development phase in partnership with the private sector." 

Secretary Brown responded that while the private sector must lead,
"we in the government have to be better partners."  He argued that
"many things [at the precompetitive stage] would not be done by the
private sector."  Brown said he could make "a strong case" that
such programs represented "one of the most important ways to
leverage scarce government resources."  Ranking Minority Member
Ernest Hollings (D-South Carolina) spoke in support of the NIST
programs, but Sen. Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico) warned that in the
current budget situation, "anybody who thinks this allocation [to
the Commerce Department] wouldn't be reduced is dreaming."

Within the next few weeks the outlines of Republican efforts to
change the Commerce Department will become clearer.  Senate
Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kansas) recommended today the
elimination of the departments of Commerce, Energy, Education, and
HUD.  Chairman Kasich made no attempt to conceal his intentions,
with a witness at the Budget Committee hearing, Wayne Berman
saying, "Chairman Kasich, you are as serious as a heart attack
about reducing the deficit."

A final note: In addition to the "Physics" and "Materials Science
& Engineering" Laboratory Program budgets cited in FYI #27, we have
been informed by a NIST official of related requested program
budget increases.  They are:

"Technology Assistance: $3.0 million for Nanometrology and
Development of Intrinsic Standards Under the Measurements and
Standards for Emerging Instrumentation Industries initiative;

"Chemical Science and Technology: $0.5 million for Measurements for
Traceability under the Health Care initiative;

"Building and Fire Research: $0.4 million for Automation in
Construction under the Construction initiative;

"Electronics and Electrical Engineering: $0.3 million for
Lithography and Contamination Control under the Semiconductor

NIST reports that the $0.6 million requested increase in the
Physics Laboratory budget will cover inflation.