In this Issue
As battle lines on both sides are beginning to be drawn, the initial makeup of what will prove to be a highly contentious battle next month over how to raise the national debt ceiling and address pending budget cuts to federal agencies has already begun to simmer.
On Jan. 11, Senate Democratic leaders formally aligned themselves in supporting President Obama utilizing a perceived, yet contentious constitutional authority under the 14th amendment to raise the debt ceiling through sending him a letter on the matter. In their letter to the President, the Senators said: “In the event that Republicans make good on their threat by failing to act, or by moving unilaterally to pass a debt limit extension only as part of unbalanced or unreasonable legislation, we believe you must be willing to take any lawful steps to ensure that America does not break its promises and trigger a global economic crisis — without Congressional approval, if necessary.”
Section 4 of the 14th amendment was originally intended to ensure payment of US debts after the Civil War and to disavow Confederate ones. However, as it is written, the sentence “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned,” can be interpreted to take on a more broad meaning, according to some, including former President Clinton, who argue that the president, if forced, should use this authority to unilaterally raise the debt ceiling. President Obama has stated that upon consulting with his lawyers this does not appear to be a viable option.
Meanwhile House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has made two specific pledges to his conference on any potential debt deal: 1) that he will only bring legislation to the floor that a majority of Republicans support and 2) that any debt limit increase will only happen if it is met dollar-for-dollar with additional spending cuts. If the past is prologue, it is expected that House Republicans will try to tie any debt limit increase with further cuts to discretionary spending and mandatory spending programs that provide assistance to low-income individuals, similar to a bill House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) put forward last May.
It is anticipated that any potential deal to increase the national debt may also address budget sequestration, a “trigger” of automatic indiscriminate spending cuts across all federal agencies set to occur on March 1 if Congress doesn’t come up with $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction. Congressional Democrats have insisted that such a deal included some type of revenue, likely the closure of tax loopholes. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, however, considers the tax issue “resolved” in lieu of the tax provisions passed in the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 (P.L. 112-240).
And, if that wasn’t a full plate, current spending for Fiscal Year 2013, which was extended through passage of a continuing resolution (CR), is scheduled to run out on March 27, 2013. This means Congress must pass another CR to continue funding the government and prevent a shutdown. The last government shutdown took place in the winter of 1996-97. House Republican leadership briefed its membership on the consequences of not reaching a deal by the deadlines of the fiscal cliff, the debt ceiling and CR during the recent two-day annual House Republican retreat.
Ryan, who was a pivotal part of the effort to educate GOP members on debt issues during the retreat, proposed a short-term debt ceiling increase to provide time for Congressional Republican leaders to work with the Senate and the White House to come up with a grand bargain for dealing with the national debt. On Jan. 18, House Republicans announced they planned to vote the following week on a bill that raise the debt ceiling for three months (through mid-April) and halt pay for Members of Congress unless the Senate passes a budget. There is a question of constitutionality regarding the congressional pay aspect of the proposal as the 27th Amendment states that any congressional pay increase or cut can’t take effect until the next Congress begins.
Assuming these political battles are resolved in a somewhat timely manner by the end of March (or April), Congress will then have limited time to outline its budget priorities for Fiscal Year 2014, which begins Oct. 1. The president has already confirmed the window for deciding the budget will be shortened in light of the fact that the White House will likely release its budget proposal a month late. The White House traditionally releases its proposed budget to Congress in early Feb., as required by law. The budget has only been delayed a handful of times in recent history. The administration cites the fiscal cliff uncertainty as the rationale for the delay this year.
The Senate letter to Obama is viewable here: http://democrats.senate.gov/2013/01/11/senate-leaders-urge-president-obama-to-consider-any-lawful-steps-to-avoid-default/
On Jan. 15, the House passed H.R. 152, the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act, the second of two major bills to provide emergency federal assistance to areas devastated by Hurricane Sandy.
The bill originally included $17 billion for immediate repairs, including $5.4 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief fund, $1.4 billion for the Army Corps of Engineers, $3.9 billion for community development grants and another $5.4 billion for transit repairs. The Environmental Protection Agency would receive $608 million and another $287 million would be provided to restore national parks, federal lands and buildings.
The House amended the bill on the floor with an additional $33 billion for long-term relief assistance for programs and initiatives that will help prevent or deter damage from future natural disasters. The amendment, by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), passed by a vote of 228-192 with all but two Democrats supporting the amendment (Reps. Jim Cooper (D-TN) and Colin Peterson (D-MN). Republicans mostly opposed the added funding with 38 supporting the amendment and 190 opposing it.
The BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of labor and conservation groups, praised the bill as necessary for both spurring job creation and equipping communities with the resources to deal with the impacts of climate change. “Besides protecting human lives and preventing billions in damage from future storms, preparing for and addressing climate change will create jobs, improve efficiency, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and expand the use of renewable energy,” asserted BlueGreen Alliance Executive Director David Foster in a press statement.
The bill was brought to the floor in two parts (the $17 billion for immediate repairs and the $33 billion long-term repairs) in a political maneuver to appease fiscally conservative Republicans. The final $50 billion bill passed by a vote of 241-180 with all but one Democrat (Rep. Cooper) voting for the bill, 38 Republicans voting for it and 190 Republicans opposing it. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) supported final passage the bill. Republicans joining him included a few senior and moderate members of the GOP conference as well as lawmakers representing the New York and New Jersey regions. Chairman Rogers did not support the $33 million Frelinghuysen amendment. However, he voted against an amendment that would have required spending cut offsets for the disaster assistance, which failed 162-258. Five Democrats and 157 Republicans supported the amendment while 71 Republicans opposed it.
House passage of the legislation marks the second time this calendar year that House Speaker Boehner (R-OH) has brought major legislation to the floor that passed without a solid majority of support from members of the Republican conference (the first being fiscal cliff tax deal on Jan. 1). It is unusual (though not at all unprecedented) for House Speakers of both major parties to take up legislation that does not pass with a majority of members from their own party.
Two key conservation figures will be absent from the Obama administration’s second term. On Jan. 16, Department of Interior (DOI) Secretary Ken Salazar announced that he was leaving his post in March. The announcement came just days after another key figure, Marcia McNutt, announced she was stepping down as head of DOI’s United States Geological Survey (USGS).
Highlights of Salazar’s tenure included various initiatives to protect public lands, including the administration’s “America’s Great Outdoors” initiative. His tenure also saw the reorganization of the former Minerals Management Service into the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement and the Office of Natural Resources Revenue, in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Since 2009, the agency has established 10 new national wildlife refuges and seven national parks. According to Interior, the agency has authorized 34 solar, wind and geothermal energy projects on public lands that total 10,400 megawatts, enough to power over three million homes. During his tenure, Interior was also the first federal agency to establish a scientific integrity policy.
Interior Secretaries have generally hailed from the western United States. Former governor Chris Gregoire (D-WA), former congressman Norm Dicks (D-WA), former senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND), former Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D-WY) and Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes have been mentioned as potential successors. Less likely candidates include Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) who is deemed by some as too liberal for the post and John Berry, a former Interior assistant secretary for policy, management and budget who would be the only openly-gay member of the president’s cabinet to date.
USGS Director Marcia McNutt will step down on Feb. 15, after seeing the next Earth-imaging satellite, Landsat 8, launched into space. McNutt, a Ph.D. geophysicist, has headed the agency since Oct. 2009. Her resignation announcement followed that of another prominent scientist from the Obama administration: the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration Administrator Jane Lubchenco, a former president of the Ecological Society of America. Deputy Director Suzette Kimball has been named acting director of USGS until a successor is finalized.
On Jan. 6, Department of Interior Secretary Kan Salazar announced the formation of a new Strategic Sciences Group to help manage environmental crises.
Announced as part of a Secretarial Order from Salazar, the new group would produce scientific assessments of environmental disasters that affect Interior resources. The group will improve utilization of the best available science when mitigating responses to both man-made and natural disasters, including hurricanes, oil spills, wildfires and droughts. According to Interior, during an environmental crisis, the Secretary may direct the Strategic Sciences Group to “activate a Crisis Science Team, including scientists from government, academic institutions, non-government organizations, and the private sector as appropriate…”
The group of scientists will be led by Gary Machlis, Science Advisor to the National Park Service Director, and David Applegate, USGS Associate Director for Natural Hazards. Machlis led the experimental Department of the Interior Strategic Sciences Working Group during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The group is required to compose an operational plan describing its organization and procedures within 90 days of the Secretarial Order.
The Interior Secretarial order is available here: http://www.doi.gov/news/pressreleases/loader.cfm?csModule=security/getfile&pageid=274267
On Jan. 11, the National Climate Assessment released its third draft federal report, which concludes climate change is already affecting US citizens in a number of ways including heat waves, droughts, rising sea levels and that the country could warm by five to ten degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the current century if action is not taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The report notes that impacts of climate change such as an increase in extreme weather events, wildfires, insect-carrying diseases as well as reductions in air quality and scarcity of food and water resources will pose threats to human health. The report also concludes that while some degree of climate change is now unavoidable, there is still time for government leaders to limit the degree of its impact.
The report is a scientific document released in draft form by the National Climate Assessment and Development and Advisory Committee, which is comprised of experts from academia, various industries and elsewhere and is not an official report from the government with policy recommendations. It will undergo a three month public comment period as well as a separate review from the National Academy of Sciences. The report is required under the Global Change Research Act, which mandates a report to Congress every four years on the environmental, economic, health and safety impacts of climate change. A final National Climate Assessment will be published towards the end of the year.
Public comments are accepted through Apr. 12, 2013. The authors of the report will use the public comments received to revise the report before submitting it to the government for consideration. For additional information, click here: http://ncadac.globalchange.gov/
On Jan. 14, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced that it will honor the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act with a year-long commemoration noting the law’s successes in working to preserve at-risk species of plants and animals.
FWS has launched a new website that will chronicle the history of the law’s implementation, noting pivotal milestones in the recovery of many species. The site includes individual stories for protected species and the latest information on their recovery efforts.
According to FWS, as of January 2013, the agency has listed 2,054 species worldwide as endangered or threatened, of which 1,436 occur in the United States. According to the agency, the Act has successfully prevented the extinction of 99 percent of the species under its protection. The Endangered Species Act was first signed into law on Dec. 28, 1973 by President Nixon.
The website is available, here: http://onlinepressroom.net/fws/
Sources: AAAS, BlueGreen Alliance, ClimateWire, Department of Interior, Energy and Environment Daily, E&E News PM, Fish and Wildlife Service, Greenwire, the Hill, POLITICO, the New York Times, Roll Call, the Washington Post