Porter Sticks With Causes

Work, Issues Have Changed Little For Former Illinois Member

Posted May 20, 2003 at 3:34pm

Former Rep. John Porter (R-Ill.) watched knowingly last month as four Senators withstood criticism from their fellow Republicans for breaking with party ranks on the president’s tax cut.

“The moderates have shown some long-awaited militancy,” the Illinois Republican said.

Porter witnessed his own share of intraparty strife as a self-described moderate and chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on Health and Human Services, Labor and Education — a hotbed for social issues that often pitted him against the GOP leadership.

Porter called the opposition of Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe (Maine), George Voinovich (Ohio), Lincoln Chafee (R.I.) and John McCain (Ariz.) to President Bush’s $726 billion tax-cut package acts of “tremendous courage.”

“I’m certain, however, in the end, moderates and conservatives in the Republican Party … understand that they need each other and agree to disagree. Moderates in the Northeast and Midwest remain very necessary to the party’s majority status,” he said in an interview.

Although Porter no longer represents the socially progressive, fiscally conservative district north of Chicago, which he relinquished along with his chairmanship in 2001, the issues on his desk every day have changed little.

“I had to give up the subcommittee because of term limits,” he said of the six-year cap the Republican Conference put on committee chairmanships in 1995. “I could have taken another subcommittee, but I really felt that my interests lay in what I had been doing. I had been on the subcommittee for 20 years.”

At 65, when he decided to retire, Porter felt that if he was going to start another career he had to do it then.

He is now a partner at Hogan & Hartson LLP, where he lobbies as part of the firm’s heath, legislative and education groups. He’s also on the boards of Research!America, the Brookings Institution, Rand Corp., PBS and the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, which just received a $200 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to identify critical scientific challenges in global health.

Although Porter said he didn’t know at the time he made his decision not to run again that his former chief of staff, now-Rep. Mark Kirk (R), would run for the seat, he wasn’t surprised. “He’s always been vitally interested in government, ambitious and smart,” Porter said.

Kirk has gained unusual prominence for a second-term lawmaker. A lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve, Kirk served on active duty during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and still pulls 12-hour shifts one weekend a month monitoring intelligence reports at the Pentagon. And he spent the five years prior to running for Porter’s seat as counsel to the House International Relations Committee.

That experience combined with his command of a district that voted for Vice President Al Gore by 8 points made him a mentioned possibility to run for the seat being vacated by Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R).

“My initial reaction was that’s something Mark ought to really look at, but it would be difficult for him to do” because he’s not been in national office long enough to be known statewide, Porter said. “He will be.

“A lot of politics is fortuitous,” Porter added, saying that Kirk’s election just prior to a series of events putting international issues in the forefront has landed Kirk in a unique position. “It’s given him a very high profile.”

As for his own international interests, Porter finds one of the only disappointments in his current position is that he doesn’t have an opportunity to expressly advocate for human rights around the world.

“I would if somebody had something for me to do,” he said.

Porter is especially proud of founding and running the Congressional Human Rights Caucus with Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) in 1982.

“That was ongoing, daily work,” Porter remembered.

Asked if he missed the daily grind of Congress, Porter said he naturally missed his colleagues and the staff but reflected on the freedom — particularly from the schedule — that comes after leaving the institution.

And these days he has quite enough to keep him busy, much of it issues formerly under his purview.

Right now he’s working for a consortium of professional societies in their quest to unify or somehow coordinate the appropriations process so that the physical sciences and the life sciences don’t draw from totally unconnected pools of funds. As it stands, the life sciences — with money directed to NIH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — are funded mostly out of Labor and HHS, while the federal funding for the physical sciences is funneled through the array of subcommittees that oversee the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, the Energy Department, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Porter said such furcated funding prevents the sort of collaboration between the life and physical sciences that today’s research demands: “They see this as a problem, and they’re right.”

But just getting lay people excited about science’s possibilities is one of Porter’s consistent goals. What the country needs, he thinks, is a Carl Sagan of biomedical research. Sagan was the face of the early space program and, in Porter’s mind, made the search to the infinite reaches of the universe tangible for many Americans. A similar figure could do the same for the seemingly infinite search to the building blocks of life. “Bring it home to people. Inspire people,” Porter said.

“If you are going to have an economy based on technology, how are you going to have it with people who don’t have a basic understanding of science? In my own mind I think technology and education are where the future of this country lays,” he said.

In 1998 Porter, along with Sens. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.), Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), proposed doubling the NIH budget to $27.5 billion in five years. His name has been so closely associated with the research institution that a $305 million John E. Porter Neuroscience Research Center is being built at NIH’s Bethesda, Md., campus.

And although he is pleased that the NIH budget was doubled by fiscal 2003, Porter is concerned that President Bush’s fiscal 2004 budget request for a 2 percent increase, less than inflation, would undo those gains. If enacted, the increase would not be enough to sustain multiyear grants the agency has already made, and the focus on bioterrorism grants could mean that other research would drop.

“Two percent for NIH? No, I’m not happy,” Porter said. “People here have to understand that scientific opportunities are better than they have ever been before. It will be discouraging to young scientists, lose the momentum we’ve [gained] and fail to keep up competitive where we have the lead over the rest of the world,” he said. “The patient advocacy research community and biotech and pharmaceutical companies will be doing their best to convince Congress that … this doesn’t make sense at all.”

And Porter will certainly be among them.

It would be helpful, he said, if there were more scientists in Congress who could articulate these issues.

“We do not have many scientists in Congress at all,” counting a chemist, a physicist and eight physicians in the House and a surgeon and a veterinarian in the Senate.

“Scientists aren’t people who generally think about running for public office. I wish more of them would.”