New Speaker of the House Paul Ryan Brings Mixed Record on Science

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Publication date: 
9 November 2015

Newly elected Speaker of the House Paul Ryan brings a record of leading a bipartisan budget effort that provided relief from spending cuts at the science agencies, although he has also proposed multiple federal budgets that would have imposed cuts to discretionary spending, from which R&D is funded. In some cases, he has opposed federal support for science facilities and areas of research he believes are wasteful, at risk of mismanagement, or not government’s proper role.

After weeks of confusion and debate on the future of the House of Representatives, following former Speaker John Boehner’s (R-OH) surprise announcement at the end of September that he would resign, the chamber resolved any lingering chaos by electing Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) their new speaker. The choice, which was unanticipated only a few weeks ago, vaults a well-known politician and national leader to the head of the “people’s chamber” and to second in the line of succession to the Presidency.

Ryan is best known for serving as the vice presidential nominee of the Republican Party in 2012 when he ran alongside former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. As the chair of the House Budget Committee for years, Ryan was the architect of the Republican Party’s alternate proposals to the President’s budget request in 2008 through 2012 and the primary Republican sponsor of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013, also known as the Ryan-Murray spending agreement, which President Obama signed into law and which provided significant relief to the science agencies from the federal budget sequester in FY 2014 and FY 2015.

Ryan has taken stands out of step with the scientific community

While Ryan has said little about scientific research during his bid for the speakership or in the short time that has elapsed since his election, a politician’s past record is usually the best indicator of his or her future positions, and Ryan’s record has been mixed on science. In some cases he has opposed funding for major projects of importance to the physical sciences community.

In June of this year, Ryan voted for the House’s controversial version of the “America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015,” which at least 75 national scientific organizations and societies oppose. That bill would aim to cap funding for the Geosciences and the Social, Behavioral, & Economic Sciences research directorates at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and impose new legislative requirements on the NSF to ensure that all grants and cooperative agreements awarded by the agency are meeting a specific definition of being “in the national interest.

In the summer of 2000, Ryan took an active stance against the establishment of the National Ignition Facility (NIF), a multi-billion dollar high energy laser facility at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in northern California. In a floor speech accompanying an amendment he proposed with Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) to defund the construction of the NIF, Ryan accused the project of being “behind schedule,” of cost estimates “being overrun,” and the effort “plagued by mismanagement.” While the NIF has since been constructed and is now operating and funded annually by Congress, his original opposition was his first high-profile stance on a national issue of interest to the scientific community.

Ryan has also frequently stated his opposition to investing federal dollars in applied energy research, especially in promoting specific energy technologies such as renewables. Ryan’s position is that it is not the government’s role to “pick winners and losers” in the energy marketplace. In a 2012 television interview, he frowned upon “spending money on favorites … like Solyndra or Fisker,” in a reference to two renewable energy startup companies the federal government subsidized before they went bankrupt.

Ryan has articulated support, through his budget blueprints, for government funding of basic research. It is not clear, however, whether those budgets in practice would have led to such support. The 2012 Republican budget proposal, for example, would have constrained future discretionary spending to a level that would have almost certainly led to less federal spending on science. According to an analysis published in Science magazine, Ryan’s budget proposal would have cut spending on general science by 4 percent below the FY 2012 budget and eventually shrink it to historically small sizes. This would have come at a time when, according to a recent analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, federal research and development (R&D) is at an historic low as a share of the total federal budget and as a share of U.S. gross domestic product. On the other hand, the landmark Ryan-Murray spending agreement lifted federal budget sequestration caps and provided enough slack in the federal budget to allow spending on R&D of all kinds to rise in FY 2014 and FY 2015.

Ryan’s plan for reauthorization of education bill and STEM title unclear

It is as of yet unclear what plans Ryan has for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which is not primarily a science bill but includes science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) provisions. As FYI reported in July, the House and Senate have passed separate versions of the ESEA legislation, and the bill is now being conferenced between the two chambers. Major sticking points persist between the two versions, and the White House has threatened to veto the House version. The Senate version of the bill includes a major STEM title that could lead to a boost in resources and attention to STEM education at the Department of Education (DoEd) and in public school districts and schools around the country.

As then Chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, former Speaker Boehner sponsored and shepherded the 2002 ESEA law, also known as No Child Left Behind, through the House. The law, signed by President George W. Bush, is seen as a landmark in increasing the federal role for public K-12 education, especially in creating uniform standards and accountability measures for gauging the improvement of K-12 school performance. Many leaders and education policy experts, however, have come to view the No Child Left Behind law as deeply flawed and ineffective at achieving its goals, and 43 states and the District of Columbia have received waivers from the DoEd to avoid the law’s penalties for school underachievement.

Given his personal investment in the law, Boehner was expected to play a role in rallying the House to pass a new reauthorization of the ESEA to reform the 2002 law. While Ryan may not be the sure champion of ESEA that Boehner was, Ryan supported the version of the bill that the House passed in July. He has also expressed disapproval over the liberal use by the DoEd of waivers for the states on the legislative requirements of the current version of ESEA, suggesting he may prefer an alternative framework over the status quo. In addition, it may bode well for supporters of ESEA reauthorization that Ryan already has a good working relationship with Rep. John Kline (R-MN), chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee and lead sponsor of the bill.

Even if Ryan decides to advance ESEA reauthorization legislation under his speakership, it is no guarantee that the final version of the bill will include the STEM title that is in the Senate-passed version of the bill. 34 members of the House sent a letter, authored by Reps. Richard Hanna (R-NY) and Joe Courtney (D-CT) supporting the inclusion of the Senate’s STEM title in the final conferenced bill, and the Senate’s STEM focus is supported by over 90 national organizations.

Ryan acknowledges House needs fixing, strikes a bipartisan note in acceptance speech

On Oct. 29, after receiving 236 votes, significantly more than the majority necessary to elect him leader of the House, newly minted Speaker Ryan struck a bipartisan note in his acceptance speech and called on his colleagues to help him fix what he described as a broken chamber. Said Ryan:

If you ever pray, let’s pray for each other--Republicans for Democrats, Democrats for Republicans. ... Pray for a deeper understanding, because—when you’re up here, you see it so clearly—wherever you come from, whatever you believe, we are all in the same boat.

Ryan indicated he would be instituting new reforms including a “return to regular order,” meaning he will try to move spending bills on time using the standard model of the annual congressional budget process. He also said the committees need to be in the lead in drafting all major legislation in the House, and he called on members to open up the lawmaking process and “let people participate.” Ryan continued:

Let’s be frank: The House is broken. We are not solving problems. We are adding to them. And I am not interested in laying blame. We are not settling scores. We are wiping the slate clean.