Keeping brainpower advantage: Alexander makes pitch for increasing science, math skills

Posted on May 3, 2007

On Monday, with few of his colleagues present and the Senate press galleries largely unoccupied, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee took the floor to make one of those statements that fill the Congressional Record but rarely go any further. "Last week," he said, "while the media covered Iraq and U.S. attorneys, the Senate spent three days debating and passing perhaps the most important piece of legislation of this two-year session. Almost no one noticed." Alexander has a point. The bill, boldly named the America Competes Act, authorized an additional $16 billion over four years as part of a $60 billion effort to "double spending for physical sciences research, recruit 10,000 new math and science teachers and retrain 250,000 more, provide grants to researchers and invest more in high-risk, high-payoff research." As Alexander noted, "these were recommendations of a National Academy of Sciences task force" that he and others had asked to tell Congress the 10 things it most urgently needed to do "to help America keep its brainpower advantage so we can keep our jobs from going to China and India." Back in December 2005, I wrote about the report that Alexander and Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Pete Domenici, both of New Mexico, had requested -- and about the bipartisan support that seemed to be available for this "competitiveness" agenda. I even suggested that it was a natural topic for President Bush's 2006 State of the Union address if he wanted to break through the growing partisan roadblocks on Capitol Hill. The president included these ideas in his message but did little to build public support or press Congress for action. Nonetheless, major elements of the bill passed the Senate last year, only to bog down in the bitterly divided House. But persistence paid off. As Alexander said, "Senators and their staffs worked across party lines for two years. Senior committee members, chairmen and ranking members, waived jurisdictional prerogatives. The administration participated in extensive 'homework sessions' with senators and outside experts. The effort was so bipartisan that when the Senate shifted to the Democrats in January, the new majority leader and minority leader introduced the same bill their predecessors had in the last Congress. Seventy senators co-sponsored the legislation. . . . The final vote was 88 to 8." The fight is far from over. The House has yet to act on most of the provisions, and finding the money to implement them will not be easy. Alexander and Bingaman added an amendment to the budget resolution allowing $1 billion of extra spending for the first-year costs of the program. Domenici and other appropriators will try to steer funds in that direction, Alexander said. Alexander's larger point is that this is the model Congress and the president need to follow -- if any of the major challenges facing the country are to be met. "There are issues that are too big for either party to solve by itself," Alexander told me. "Globalization and competitiveness are two of them. Immigration is the next one on the agenda. And then there is health care." He pointed out that the bipartisan breakfast sessions that he and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut have been hosting regularly this year have included discussions of health policy. As a byproduct of the breakfasts, "10 of us, five Republicans and five Democrats, have written the president saying that we are ready to work with him on a bill that has two principles -- universal coverage and private markets. We hope he responds." Iraq looms as the supreme test, of course, and Alexander, a Bush supporter, nonetheless says "it was a mistake" for the president not to seize on the Baker-Hamilton commission recommendations as the basis for a bipartisan answer to the dilemma of the war. "It's still sitting there on the shelf," he said, implying that Bush will have to come back to Baker-Hamilton at some point. Meantime, Alexander has a gentle reminder for the press that our mind-set means that "unfortunately, bipartisan success, even on the biggest, most complex issues, has an excellent chance of remaining a secret. "Despite the size of the accomplishment, the passage of the 208-page America Competes Act was barely noticed by the major media. This is not a complaint, merely an observation. More than ever, the media, outside interest groups and party structures reward conflict and the taking of irreconcilable positions. There is little reward for reconciling principled positions into legislation." Sadly, I think he is right.