Washington insiders pronounced high-definition television dead many months ago, the victim of a vicious attack by the Bush administration on what it scornfully labeled industrial policy.
Look again. HDTV is just one of a host of technology-development programs to have fared famously in the 1991 budget. Congress found room last week to favor all sorts of projects that claim to boost a favorite Capitol Hill cause: economic competitiveness.
The dollar numbers aren't huge. And often the program descriptions are laced with words like "generic" and "industry-led" to distance them from blatant industrial policy, which the administration opposes as picking winners and losers among commercial technologies. But no matter how you phrase it, the assorted projects blessed in this year's Defense and Commerce Department budgets add up to a victory for people who believe government should foster industrial strength.
"In the technology area you really do have an emerging bipartisan consensus that this is critical to the country's future," said a pleased Kent Hughes, president of the Council on Competitiveness, an industry group.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency -- the Pentagon unit whose director, Craig Fields, was ousted earlier this year for veering too close to industrial policy -- fared especially well. According to an unofficial congressional estimate, Darpa emerged from budget negotiations with almost $1.4 billion, up about 13 percent from last year, and in marked contrast to the shrinkage of the overall Pentagon budget.
While Darpa stresses the defense applications of its research programs, proponents are quick to note that work funded by the agency often spills over into commercial products, thereby helping to build a strong industrial economy. That's what they hope will happen with the crisp pictures promised by the HDTV research program, known these days by the more politically acceptable label "high definition display technology." Darpa's HDTV project garnered $75 million in the new budget package -- nowhere near the hundreds of millions once envisioned by industry but more than double last year's amount and six times what Darpa had planned to shell out this year.
A long list of Darpa programs got equally impressive boosts. For example, X-ray lithography, for which no money was requested, won $60 million, up from $30 million last year. Strategic computing ended up with $20 million more than requested, thanks to a congressional urge to jump-start an administration-backed program to build a high-speed national computer data network.
Congress also added a new $50 million Pentagon program for advanced manufacturing technology, which may end up in Darpa's camp. That's just a piece of an estimated $314 million available to the Pentagon to spend on furthering manufacturing know-how -- nearly double last year's amount, according to a staff member for Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), a proponent of fostering a strong national technology base.
Lawmakers appear to be so taken by the concept of consortia, whereby a number of technology companies join together with government support, that they opened two avenues for such cooperative efforts. One new $50 million pot was created within Darpa -- the so-called "pre-competitive technology development" program.
Also benefiting from the congressional consortia mania is the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a unit of the Commerce Department that saw its fledgling Advanced Technology Program boosted from $10 million last year to $36 million.
As Darpa did, the standards institute profited from congressional interest in manufacturing, getting enough funds to expand from three to five the number of centers designed to transfer manufacturing technology to small businesses.
Overall, the agency's budget increase is sure to become the envy of other agencies. The institute, after languishing for years, landed a 33 percent increase, to $215 million.
However, industrial policy opponents can count some victories. Two authorization measures were stopped cold -- one that would further expand the role of the standards institute and another that would have targeted federal money for the production of goods needed for defense purposes. Staff writer John Burgess contributed to this story.