A rook or a pawn: the White House Science Advisor in an age of climate confusion.

Author:Aslanian, Len

    In October 1986, at the height of the American AIDS crisis, the Office of the Surgeon General issued the federal government's first major report on the disease. * In direct and sometimes explicit language, the report detailed the nature, symptoms, and causes of AIDS and called for a nationwide educational campaign that included controversial measures such as early childhood sex education and public promotion of condom use. (1) Eighteen months later, in the largest public health mailing in US history, a condensed version of the report titled Understanding AIDS was sent to 107 million American households. (2)

    Both versions of the report were personally penned by President Reagan's Surgeon General, the bow-tied and billy goatbearded pediatric surgeon C. Everett Koop. (3) A controversial figure due to his evangelical Christian background and anti-abortion views, (4) Koop had endured a difficult confirmation process to the Surgeon General post after Congressional liberals led by Henry Waxman labeled him an "arch-conservative" and questioned his credentials for the position. (5) But more than any other figure, it was Koop who during the terrifying early years of the AIDS crisis laid the groundwork that led to the Reagan administration's most extensive efforts against the disease, (6) including a major 1987 speech by Reagan to the American Foundation for AIDS Research, (7) the issuing of a 10-point Executive branch plan to protect HIV-positive federal workers against discrimination, and Reagan's signing of an $870 million appropriations bill for AIDS research and education programs. (8)

    Koop's actions as Surgeon General forced the Reagan administration to take notice of the devastating epidemic occurring on its watch. This was despite fierce opposition from many powerful figures in the White House, including Reagan's domestic policy advisor Gary Bauer, who for both political and ideological reasons Would have preferred to ignore the AIDS crisis entirely. (9) From outside the White House, Koop also received personal death threats for his forceful actions. (10) Years later, Koop's old foe Henry Waxman had this to say:

    As the nation's doctor, the surgeon general has tremendous credibility and influence. Koop used his to fight AIDS ... speaking plainly and truthfully when Republicans were discouraged from doing so. It could not have been easy for him. By the end of his tenure, many conservatives despised him. Some Republicans in Congress even boycotted a dinner in his honor because he had done what the rest of the Reagan administration refused to do and confronted the AIDS problem. That is why Koop is today regarded as the model of what a Surgeon General should be.... I was wrong about Koop--and he turned out to make one of the most significant contributions in dealing with AIDS and the public's health. (11) Koop's heroic role in the AIDS fight illustrates the profound influence a non-Cabinet Executive branch office can have on controversial public debates. In the context of the climate change debate, one such non-Cabinet office with Koop-like political potential is the Science Advisor to the President. The office of the Science Advisor was created during the Eisenhower administration as a direct reaction to the USSR's launch of the Sputnik satellite and consequent fears that the United States was falling behind in the science and technology ("S&T") Sector. (12) During the Kennedy administration, the Executive branch Office of Science and Technology Policy ("OSTP") was established in order to support and institutionalize the work of the Science Advisor. (13) The Congressional act establishing OSTP directs the Science Advisor to:

    [A]dvise the President and others within the [White House] on the effects of science and technology on domestic and international affairs[;] ... to lead interagency efforts to develop and implement sound science and technology policies and budgets, and to work with the private sector, state and local governments, the science and higher education communities, and other nations toward this end. (14) The Science Advisor's influence over White House policies arguably peaked during the early years of the "space race" and has steadily declined since then. (15) Nevertheless, even in recent years the Science Advisor played an integral role in important White House policies such as the Strategic Defense Initiative, (16) low-emissions vehicle technologies, (17) and the federal S&T research budget. (18)

    Regarding climate change, however, the Science Advisor has so far exerted only a limited influence. This may be due to the fact that the climate issue has only been on the front burner of the nation's political agenda for the past decade or so. But political denial is a more likely culprit: during eight out of the past ten years, the second Bush administration (19) stuck to a consistent pattern of dismissal or suppression of all S&T advice that conflicted with its ideological goals, including that advice related to climate change. The Bush administration's inaction on this massively important issue is of course distressing. But the behavior of the Science Advisor under Bush also starkly illustrates how political office administration depends heavily on the officeholder's ability and willingness to leverage his or her credibility on pressing issues. If one or both qualities are absent, as both apparently were in Bush's Science Advisor, then the office's policy goals are very likely to get steamrolled by larger Executive branch political considerations.

    This does not downplay the importance of the Presidential administration's shared interest in the goals of the non-Cabinet office: if no White House support for the office exists outside of its own limited domain, then the office's political role will be reduced to little more than pomp and window-dressing. But for a non-Cabinet office to exert meaningful influence over government policy, a not insignificant amount of both internal support on the part of the White House and personal integrity on the part of the officeholder are helpful, if not required.

    As a model of a non-Cabinet office at its lowest ebb of influence and integrity--a near-opposite of Koop's tenure--it is worth exploring the tenure of Bush's Science Advisor in depth.


    The second Bush administration began with an ominous start, at least from the perspective of the S&T community, when a full eight months passed after Bush's election victory before he finally nominated a candidate to lead OSTP, the distinguished physicist John Marburger. (20) As one observer put it, the appointment came so late it was made "seemingly as an afterthought." (21) Significantly, this delay prevented the Science Advisor from taking part in the important budgetary and operational decisions that are made during the transition and early days of a Presidential administration, many of which are S&T-related. (22)

    Once Marburger was in place, Bush further diminished the position by kicking the physical location of the Science Advisor's office out of the White House and refusing to give Marburger the title of "Assistant to the President." Although both moves may seem merely symbolic, they had a real detrimental effect on the influence of the Science Advisor.

    The physical location of a non-Cabinet office has important symbolic and functional effects on the office's political status. As one of the Clinton administration's Science Advisors Neal Lane admitted, much of the Science Advisor's power comes from its perceived importance. (23) Quite plainly, if other Washington power players believe that the Science Advisor has the ear of the President they will accord the office a great deal more respect and attention than would otherwise be the case. To quote one OSTP staffer for the first President Bush's Science Advisor, D. Allan Bromley, "Because of Bromley's proximity to the president, Cabinet-level people came to his meetings." (24) A key to the importance of that "proximity" relates to the perception of external White House observers: those outside the White House are more likely to assume that the Science Advisor and the President are politically close if their offices and staff are also physically close. The opposite is true if their offices are physically distant from each other. Administratively, Bromley again put it best when he discussed the situation as it was prior to his arrival, with OSTP situated a few blocks away from the White House: "For all practical purposes--in terms of ease of communication--Pennsylvania Avenue could have been five miles wide." (25)

    The Bush administration's refusal to award Marburger an "Assistant to the President" title was also significant. The most important aspect of an "Assistant" title is that it allows for direct access by the individual holding it to the President on a regular basis, rather than requiring them to report to White House aides. (26) Usually only a handful of staffers are accorded this prestigious title: senior political advisors, the Chief of Staff, the National Security Advisor, plus a few others, all at the President's discretion. Some White House observers have argued that an "Assistant" title is necessary to recruit the most outstanding people to the President's senior staff and to allow them to be effective in their high-level tasks once they are in place. (27)

    Although not all Science Advisors over the years have been given "Assistant" titles, the first President Bush and President Clinton saw fit to do so. (28) Due to this unbroken 12-year track record of intimate Presidential access, it came as a shock and rebuff to many in the scientific community when Bush refused to accord the same honorary to his...

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