WASHINGTON—A recent dispute between a powerful congressman and the executive branch about how the United States should deal with China—and what technology it should share—reached a decisive conclusion recently. The White House’s science office took a body blow, with 32 percent of its funding cut after it decided to flaunt Congress.
The controversy began early in the year when Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.10), an outspoken critic of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), inserted a clause into a spending bill that prevented the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and NASA from engaging in bilateral cooperation with China or any Chinese company.
He had in January become chairman of the House Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Subcommittee, which funds the OSTP.
But the clause was ignored by Dr. John P. Holdren, the head of the office, who soon after went to China to discuss cooperation in human space flight. The OSTP also participated in an Innovation Dialogue and later a Strategic & Economic Dialogue, all in May.
These activities broke the law, according to a decision by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which reviewed the case after receiving a request by Wolf. The OSTP was acting under advice from the Justice Department.
Based on the GAO decision and OSTP’s continued defiance, Wolf decided that a budget cut was in order.
“China is a country who is spying on us, stealing from us,” and ripping off American businesses, said Dan Scandling, a spokesman for Rep. Wolf. “And on top of that has a terrible record on human rights.”
Rep. Wolf has been a longstanding champion for human rights in China, and an outspoken critic of the regime for its abuses.
Scandling asked: “Why do we want to give [technology to] a country who is spying against us and stealing from us our technology? It makes absolutely no sense.”
Cuts will have to be made, but the OSTP does not know what they will be yet. Wolf had originally suggested chopping the budget by half, but a final figure of 32 percent was decided on. The more modest cut will not force the office to carry out layoffs, but will almost certainly hamper it in its ability to engage in diplomacy with China—or share technology.
“There are real concerns about China misappropriating, stealing, or otherwise acquiring U.S. technology,” said Jeff Kueter, president of the Virginia-based George C. Marshall Institute, which focuses on public policy related to science.
“When Holdren goes and flaunts the United States Congress, no one should be surprised when Congress comes back and severely reprimands them,” he said.
Gregory Kulacki, China project manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an organization based in Cambridge, Mass., says he sympathizes with Wolf’s concerns about Chinese human rights abuses. Wolf does not wish to bestow on the Chinese regime the aura of credibility and legitimacy that a technology exchange with the United States would provide, Kulacki said. But he thinks that the response—cutting them off—is wrongheaded.
“The Chinese Communist Party likes to demonize the United States … because it doesn’t want young Chinese intellectuals seeing the U.S. as a model for China’s future,” he said.
When Rep. Wolf prevents cooperation with the Chinese, “he’s actually helping the CCP deliver the message it wants to deliver to its young people,” he said, which is that the United States is hostile to China and the Chinese people (rather than to the Chinese regime).
Other groups are unhappy with the funding cut for different reasons. The Union of Concerned Scientists says it could be “crippling” to the ability of the office to ensure the integrity of federal scientific information.
Research organizations such as the Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA) are watching carefully to see how the cut might affect the federal research portfolio, according to Chas Henry, IDA’s corporate communications manager.
The affair highlights the ability of Congress to crack down financially on the executive when its laws are ignored, analysts say.
“The White House needs to work on its congressional relations,” said Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, a Washington-based nonprofit, in an email. “The executive simply ignored Congress and it’s now literally paying the price. Normally, this sort of flap results in a resignation or two,” he wrote.
The HR 2112 minibus bill which funds transportation, agriculture, and commerce, carried the budget cut. It was signed into law by President Obama on Nov. 18 and is effective until Sept. 30, 2012.
The language of the provision was diluted from the previous version, this time effectively saying that the OSTP can cooperate with China as long as sensitive technology is not shared, and as long as Congress is notified. The previous wording was a blanket ban on such cooperation.
Nevertheless, the affair signals a victory for a strong and vocal group in Congress, and supporters around the United States who are wary of engaging with the Chinese regime, Jeff Kueter says. “As a moral principle, they stand in opposition to taxpayer funds going to benefit that regime.”