Back to the People

Science  11 Aug 2006:
Vol. 313, Issue 5788, pp. 733
DOI: 10.1126/science.1133322

President Bush's recent veto of HR 810, the measure in the U.S. Congress that would have expanded federal funding for stem cell research, has focused attention on what is happening in this and other issues in science policy. The Senate vote was 63 to 37 in favor: a strong vote, but neither it nor the House could gather enough votes for the supermajority required to override the veto. That left federal funds available for research on only the few cell lines derived before 9 August 2001 and revealed a seismic shift in the relationship between the president and the people's representatives in Congress. It was a surprisingly sharp rebuke to administration policy by a group including the Senate majority leader and other members of the president's own party.

National polls have repeatedly indicated that the U.S. public favors research using stem cells derived from embryos that would otherwise be discarded after in vitro fertilization procedures. That is exactly what the Senate and House legislation sought to permit, and what the president's veto forcefully rejected. Fifty-eight percent of U.S. citizens, who may know that some of our partner nations have more permissive policies, disapproved of the president's action. The interesting question we now confront is this: What happens when a clear signal from the public is unheard or unanswered by the administration in power?

CREDIT: FRED PROUSER/REUTERS

Of course, standard political theory anticipates that the voters will exact their penalty at the polls. Although an opportunity of sorts will be offered by this fall's midterm elections, there is a real risk of punishing the wrong target. After all, the majority in Congress got this one right. The presidential election of 2008 looms, but it's a long distance away, and political patience is a commodity in short supply. So what might happen in the meantime?

For an explanation, we might look at some possible parallels. National polls have also shown that the U.S. public is increasingly worried about climate change and favors action at the federal level. The United Kingdom and other European nations have announced strong steps to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions, but the Bush administration has not—and it sends representatives to international meetings on the topic instructed to talk about “climate variability” rather than “climate change.” There's a similarity here, and it's an unexpected one: In each case, federal failure to act has resulted in a downward migration to other jurisdictions. This may not be a unique case, but I cannot recall one like it.

In the case of climate change, states, regional cooperatives of states, and cities have begun a rebellion against the failure of national actions aimed at reducing emissions and raising fuel economy standards. The mayor of Seattle, for example, having moved his city's public transportation system to clean vehicles, has thus far gathered a consortium of 275 mayors with firm commitments to a Climate Protection Agreement with emissions reduction targets. Meanwhile, the New England states will adopt the new tailpipe standards for carbon dioxide emissions that now apply in all three West Coast states. California is even acting like a nation, as Governor Schwarzenegger forges climate-mitigation deals with UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. What's next, secession?

As to stem cells, state research initiatives were led by California's huge bond issue, passed by nearly 60% of the vote as a ballot proposition. After the Bush veto, Schwarzenegger promptly bailed out the project from a temporary legal stalemate with a $150 million state loan. Four other states have passed legislation appropriating funds for such research, and sharp struggles are under way in some others, notably Missouri, where a citizen's petition calls for a statewide referendum on the legality of embryonic stem cell research.

This outcome is an odd reversal of the federal-state tensions to which we have become accustomed. Those used to involve complaints about “unfunded federal mandates”: costs that the national government lays on states by imposing obligations without paying for them. What's happening here is a turnaround: We have a “neglected federal mandate,” and the states and cities are picking up the obligation cheerfully! The administration should be embarrassed by its own neglect and start listening to the voters.

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