New House leadership reaccesses spending

When the 106th Congress convenes in Washington, DC, this month, Robert L. Livingston will take the helm of the Republican Party`s fortunes in the House of Representatives. Livingston, the new Speaker of the House, succeeds Newt Gingrich, who resigned as Speaker after the November elections, when Republicans lost seats in the House, which narrowed their majority to 223 out of the House`s 435 seats (see photo).

Jan 1st, 1999

New House leadership reaccesses spending

Vincent Kiernan Washington Editor

When the 106th Congress convenes in Washington, DC, this month, Robert L. Livingston will take the helm of the Republican Party`s fortunes in the House of Representatives. Livingston, the new Speaker of the House, succeeds Newt Gingrich, who resigned as Speaker after the November elections, when Republicans lost seats in the House, which narrowed their majority to 223 out of the House`s 435 seats (see photo).

The 55-year-old Louisiana congressman was first elected to the House in 1977. When Republicans seized control of the chamber in 1995, he became chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, which prepares 13 separate bills each year that provide funds for all government agencies. He is expected to be less ideological than Gingrich and therefore perhaps more open to compromise with the Clinton administration.

Defense spending

Livingston is likely to be a friend to many programs and issues of interest to the laser industry. For example, the former Navy serviceman is known for his strong prodefense views, and, therefore, high-technology Pentagon programs are expected to fare well in the House under his leadership.

In particular, Livingston is a proponent of developing defenses against ballistic missiles and has been one of the House leaders in a Republican effort to commit the nation to deploying a missile-defense system. "Missiles, nuclear threats, chemical threats, and biological threats still exist, if not on a scale that existed between the two major superpowers back in the early 1980s. It exists in a different capacity. We have a very troubled world," he said at a meeting of the House Appropriations Committee National Security Subcommittee in April 1996.

Livingston has been a particular backer of a sea-based Navy missile that would be able to shoot down incoming enemy missiles. But he also has supported development of other missile-defense technologies, such as airborne and space-based lasers. While he chaired the Appropriations Committee, the House passed defense appropriations bills that included substantial levels of funding for both projects--sometimes more than Clinton even had requested.

Livingston supports the Pentagon`s missile-defense program, formerly known as the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), not only because it offers the possibility of defending the nation, but also because of the commercial potential that some of the technologies may have. "The benefits of SDI do not stop at the ozone layer. Spin-off technology from SDI research is already reshaping our society, and the promise of tomorrow`s improvements is even greater," Livingston told the House in April 1990.

"Computer engineers have incorporated SDI optical technology to produce a generation of inexpensive supercomputers that work 1000 times faster than ordinary models. A laser-treatment process originally developed for the SDI program is now used to wash blood supplies of diseases such as herpes, measles, hepatitis-B, and AIDS. This could help reduce health-care costs."

One of the key issues facing the House and Senate will be how to handle any future surpluses in the federal government`s budget. In the last fiscal year, the government was in the black for the first time in decades. President Clinton and Congress sparred over how much of that surplus to split among government programs, Social Security, and tax cuts.

"We muffed our message a little bit in the last elections, and the American people held us accountable," Livingston told reporters in November after being elected Speaker by the full Republican-dominated House. "But as Abe Lincoln said, a slip is not a fall. We may have slipped, but we haven`t fallen, and we`re going to pick ourselves up and move ourselves forward and advance the Republican agenda, because that agenda is what`s good for the American people."

Tax-cut proposals

Cutting taxes will have a prominent place in that Republican agenda, according to Livingston and other senior Republican lawmakers. "We`re going to again cut taxes as we did in the House in the last Congress, we`re going to work with our colleagues in the Senate, and we`re going to get a tax reduction to the American people," said Rep. Dick Armey (R-TX). As House majority leader, Armey will be an important righthand man to Livingston`s efforts.

One obvious candidate in the tax-cutting department may be the tax credit for business expenditures on research-and-development (R&D) projects. Unlike most other tax credits, the R&D tax credit is not permanent. Instead, Congress must periodically renew it. The uncertainty about the credit`s long-term future may reduce its power to lure businesses to spend money on research and development, and making the credit permanent may be attractive to Republicans.

"If the President wants to work with us and advance our principles--freedom across the board in America, low-cost government, efficient government, honest government, and lower taxes--then we welcome anyone, the President or any member, any Democrat, to help us in advancing that agenda," says Livingston.

But Livingston also may pick some fights with the Clinton administration. One likely area of conflict is the Advanced Technology Program (ATP) sponsored by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (Gaithersburg, MD). The ATP supplies funds to companies to develop technologies with the potential for important commercial uses but that are too immature to attract private funds such as from investors.

The Clinton administration strongly backs the ATP, which has financed projects in electro-optics and other fields of interest to the laser industry, but Livingston`s Appropriations Committee repeatedly tried to sharply cut the program`s budget. Time and again, Clinton has outmaneuvered the Republicans and managed to keep the program alive.

But Livingston opposes the ATP. "That is mostly corporate welfare," Livingston said on the House floor in March 1996. "It is taxpayers` dollars going to big companies to fund new technologies." With such sentiments, it seems clear that the election of a new Speaker doesn`t mean the end of political sparring between Congress and President Clinton. o

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