October 11, 2013

In this Issue

GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN: GRIDLOCK CONTINUES IN CONGRESS, NO END IN SIGHT

This week, Congressional leaders continued debating bills to temporarily fund the government, as well as yet-to-be-introduced legislation to prevent the nation from defaulting on its debt. The government shut down its “nonessential” functions on Oct. 1, the start of current Fiscal Year (FY) 2014, after the House and Senate failed to reach agreement on the contents of a temporarily spending bill. With the US Department of Treasury indicating the federal government may reach the debt ceiling on Oct. 17, it appears that a deal to continue federal spending for FY 2014 may be tied to a deal to raise the debt ceiling, which must be periodically increased to pay for federal spending already authorized by Congress.  

In the week leading up to the shutdown, the House had passed a continuing resolution (CR) that funded the government through Dec. 15 with the exception of provisions related to implementation of the Affordable Care Act (P.L. 111-148). The Senate took up the bill and amended it by striking the Affordable Care Act provisions and shortening the CR’s length to Nov. 15. The shorter time frame on the CR was intended to incentivize Congress to address the sequester in a manner that does not continue or increase existing cuts to discretionary spending (reaching such a deal would free appropriators to fund government agencies at the higher spending caps outlined in the Budget Control Act of 2011). The House Republican leadership would not take up the Senate’s “clean” CR bill for a vote and, thus far, has only allowed a vote on CRs that contain provisions to defund the Affordable Care Act.

Since the federal government shutdown began, Congressional Republicans and Democrats have sought to sway public opinion through messaging tactics. Republicans in Congress contend the president and Senate Democrats are being obtuse in refusing to negotiate over whether to include provisions to delay or repeal the Affordable Care Act in the short-term CR. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) contends there are not enough votes in the House to pass a temporary clean CR or a clean increase in the debt limit. The House has sought to address many of the general public’s concerns with the shutdown by taking up piece meal bills that open various parts of the government to address healthcare treatment, assistance to veterans and military families as well as national park service closures, issues that tend to gain extensive media coverage and deep empathy from the general public.

Congressional Democrats and the White House equate the Republican tactics to holding the government hostage or ransom, asserting that they will not negotiate while a government shutdown is in effect. Senate Democratic leaders maintain that they have been willing to negotiate budget issues for several months preceding the shutdown. Senate Democrats also argue that the piecemeal approaches passed by the House amount to more political brinksmanship that unfairly picks winners and losers. President Obama and Congressional Democrats have called for Speaker Boehner to hold an up or down vote on the Senate-passed CR, challenging Speaker Boehner’s claim that there are not enough votes to pass the bill. Several professional media outlets report that there are a minimum of 20-28 pragmatic Republicans who would consider voting for a clean CR bill. On Oct. 5, House Democratic leaders sent a letter to Speaker Boehner signed by 195 voting Democrats, expressing their support for the Senate bill.

While this math would indicate there may be enough votes among House Democrats and pragmatic Republicans to pass a clean CR bill at any moment, politics has prevented the House from moving forward on such a measure. Most if not all of the aforementioned several dozen Republicans are unwilling to undermine or usurp Speaker Boehner by siding with Democrats in various procedural maneuvers to bring the bill for an immediate vote. Hence, they will likely only support a clean CR if Speaker Boehner chooses to bring up such a bill.

For his part, Speaker Boehner has already antagonized much of the conservative base by allowing House votes on several bills earlier this year, including the American Taxpayer Relief Act, the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization and emergency spending for Hurricane Sandy relief, to pass under the weight of House Democrats joined by a minority of centrist Republicans.  Consequently, there is a sentiment that consecutive votes to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling that pass the House with opposition from a majority of House Republicans would put Boehner’s control of the speakership in jeopardy.

This week, President Obama offered to negotiate with House Speaker Boehner in exchange for voting on the Senate CR to temporarily reopen the government while a deal is worked out. Boehner thus far has dismissed this approach as “unconditional surrender” on the part of Congressional Republicans. Speaker Boehner, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca), House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), and House Majority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) also met this week in the speaker’s office to discuss the shutdown standoff, but no headway seemed to have been made from the meeting. A subsequent meeting occurred Oct. 10 between the White House and eighteen House Republicans, comprising mostly of House leadership (including Speaker Boehner) and key committee chairs.

Debt ceiling proposals emerge

Amid the chaos over the federal government shutdown, federal policymakers also wrestled with how to raise the national debt ceiling. The US Treasury predicts the US will hit the limit around Oct. 17. As of Oct. 10, House Republican leadership seemed to be coalescing around a six-week plan to provide a clean increase in the debt-ceiling free of political riders to allow additional time to negotiate a spending deal. President Obama and Senate Democrats are open to the idea of temporarily raising the debt ceiling, but have stated that do not intend to negotiate on a budget deal until after the government reopens.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) will attempt to vote on a clean increase in the debt ceiling through 2014. However, Senate Republicans plan to block the measure, asserting that Democrats are trying to skirt the issue during the 2014 election cycle. The defeat increases the likelihood that a deal on the debt will either be short-term or include spending cuts as an alternative plan would consequently lack sufficient votes to pass either chamber. The president has asserted that while they are supportive of a short-term debt ceiling increase, they will not agree to any deal on the long-term budget itself until the government reopens.

Senate Republicans are developing their own comprehensive plan to raise the debt ceiling for a few months and end the government shutdown with a year-long continuing resolution. In contrast to their House counterparts, a consensus is developing among Senate Republicans that a deal to prevent default on the debt should also reopen the government. The plan, floated by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), would also  repeal the healthcare law’s medical-device tax and language to require income verification of people who apply for healthcare subsidies under the Affordable Care Act. Senate Republicans were set to meet at the White House the morning of Fri., Oct. 11.

Hope for furloughed workers

There does seem to be bipartisan agreement on aid to furloughed federal employees. The House passed a bill on Oct. 5 to approve back pay to compensate furloughed workers. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has not indicated when the Senate will take up the bill for federal workers, though the White House has endorsed the measure. House Republican leadership has already used the bill to their political advantage, calling for the Senate to also support piecemeal bills that provide relief for veterans and sick individuals. The White House released a statement declaring it will veto the individual piecemeal spending bills.

“Instead of opening up a few government functions, the House of Representatives should re-open all of the government. The harmful impacts of a shutdown extend across government, affecting services that are critical to small businesses, women, children, seniors, and others across the nation,” the White House statement reads. “The Senate acted in a responsible manner on a short-term funding measure to maintain Government functions and avoid a damaging Government shutdown. The House of Representatives should allow a straight up or down vote on the Senate-passed H.J. Res. 59.”

A message from the president to all federal workers is available here:

http://www.interior.gov/news/doinews/upload/Message-from-the-President-to-U-S-Government-Employees.pdf

GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN: FURLOUGHS PUT RESEARCH, CONSERVATION EFFORTS ON HOLD

 

Federally-funded scientific research plows ahead – for the moment. However, if you’re applying for a new grant or renewal of an existing one, your application may be in limbo for the foreseeable future. Federal scientific research at the majority of existing agencies, including the National Science Foundation (NSF), the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been halted. In general, regulatory and permitting at activities at federal agencies have been postponed until the shutdown ends. Enclosed are impacts of the shutdown on several federal agencies of importance to the ecological community.

BLM/BSEE

The Department of Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) will retain 340 of its workers the agency has designated as “essential” to oversee drilling operations and inspection activities. Drilling permits will also continue to be processed at BSEE. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will also continue its drilling monitoring activities related to safety and property protection. Its permit processing staff has been furloughed. In total, BLM has furloughed 10,200 or its 10,800 workers. Of DOI’s 58,785 workforce, 81 percent would be furloughed.

DOE

The Department of Energy’s research programs remain largely operational as much of its funding is appropriated on a multi-year basis, temporarily shielding much of its staff from furloughs. However, its Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy program will not function as it runs on an annual budget. Eventually, 69 percent of DOE employees will have to be furloughed under an extended shutdown scenario. Those who remain will be workers in charge of monitoring nuclear materials and energy power grids.

While existing federally-funded projects can move forward, a government shutdown that lasts not days, but weeks, can serve to waste countless numbers of dollars in projects that go uncompleted. Many scientific experiments require monitoring and measurements that must be documented over an extended time period. If funding runs out on such experiences, the researchers likely will have to restart the experiment from the beginning again.  

EPA

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) exempted an estimated 1,069 of its 16,205 employees from furlough to enforce activities “”where a failure to maintain operations would pose an imminent threat to human life,” according to the agency’s shutdown memorandum. According to EPA, 505 hazardous waste sites in 47 states will still see delays in cleanup activities because of the shutdown. The agency contingency plans also include having staff ready to support emergency response efforts related to an environmental disaster such as an oil spill. EPA will also continue to operate its 39 laboratories across the nation to protect research equipment and tested organisms.

Just 182 out of the 804 staffers in EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance are exempt from the shutdown. This means the agency, tasked with performing an average of 200,000 facility inspections and evaluations per year, will be short-staffed in carrying out its duties.  Typical office activities such as coordinating response to an environmental disaster, policing illegal disposal of hazardous waste or toxic disposal of harmful materials into potable water resources will be more difficult to enforce.

FWS

The US Fish and Wildlife Service will close its wildlife refuges off to the public and will not review plant and animal species considered for federal protection. Ecological research sites on federal lands and wildlife refuges are now closed to researchers. Consultations and reviews related to enforcement of the Lacey Act and the National Environmental Policy Act will also be postponed. Wildlife facilities will have at least one person on staff to care for animals. As law enforcement staff are considered “essential employees,” enforcement of existing Endangered Species Act protections will continue, but reviews of petitions for listing of new candidate species have been postponed indefinitely.

NASA

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration will shutdown the majority of its operations. A skeleton crew will remain in place to aid NASA astronauts currently aboard the international space station.

NOAA

Nearly half of NOAA’s workforce will stay on the job during the shutdown. The agency continues programs directly related to weather monitoring with 5,368 of its 12,001 employees remaining to carry out such activities.  Nearly 4,000 of these employees works at the National Weather Service. Climate monitoring activities will continue within the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research for continuity purposes, but most all other areas of NOAA research carried out by federal scientists will be momentarily discontinued.

In general, office with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the National Ocean Service that enforce endangered species laws and preserve natural resources will continue to be staffed. However, NMFS has suspended its Dynamic Management Area program which protects endangered right whales from deadly ship strikes. Live mammal strandings will no longer be guaranteed an immediate federal response as reviews will occur to determine if public health and animal welfare warrants the expense of government resources.

NPS

All national parks and visitor centers have closed. Guest staying on national park campgrounds were notified they had 48 hours to vacate. The National Park Service (NPS) will continue to provide law enforcement and emergency assistance personnel that handle such activities as border protection and firefighting. All education programs, including school visits were cancelled. Scientists conducting research on national parks are prohibited from accessing said areas. The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees (CNPSR) estimates that as of Oct. 11, a total of $750 million in visitor spending has been lost since the shutdown began.

NSF

The websites research.gov, grants.gov and Fastlane will be closed, hence no NSF funding applications will be processed or monitored. Those who have already been funded will not be able to receive additional funding that has not already been allocated. NSF will also be unable to process no-cost extensions for existing grant awardees. All review panels scheduled during the shutdown will be canceled. Younger researchers, mainly graduate students who are often dependent on one grant source, are likely to disproportionately feel the burden of the funding shortfalls. NSF’s US Antarctic Program began putting research stations, ships and other assets on “caretaker status” this week. Researchers have been sent home and it looks like this field season will be cancelled.

USDA

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) website has been totally disabled due to the shutdown with no information displayed or method to navigate the site. Food inspection will continue, albeit with fewer workers. Stations operated by USDA’s Agricultural Research Service will be closed. The Natural Resources Conservation Service will continue only operations that are essential for the protection of life and property. The US Forest has closed campgrounds and halted logging on national forest lands. The Animal Plant Health and Inspection Service will continue operation of its program related to border protection, quarantine and any other programs deemed to protect public health and property. Complaint investigations related to potential Animal Welfare Act violations, however, will be discontinued. 

USGS

USGS continues its programs related to flood forecasting, volcanic activity, earthquake hazard and other responses to environmental and man-made biological disasters. Landsat 7 and 8 operations would also continue as would detection of zoonotic threats in wildlife. General scientific data collection on natural resources will cease, however, as will public dissemination of water quality data. Ecosystem health and restoration efforts will be discontinued.

It should be noted that productivity for even essential government operations may still be hindered by the overall agency shortages. Long-term, the increasing lack of certainty of federal funding for investment in scientific research may encourage individuals to pursue science careers overseas or dissuade people from pursuing careers in science altogether.

A full list of agency contingency plans is available here: http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/contingency-plans

AGRICULTURE: CONSERVATION GROUPS PRESS LAWMAKERS FOR FARM BILL ACTION

 

On Oct. 7, a group of conservation organizations sent a letter to the president and House leadership requesting enactment of a five-year farm bill reauthorization. The most recent extension of the farm bill expired Sept. 30.

The organizations spearheading the letter are Ducks Unlimited, the National Wild Turkey Federation, Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever. While crop subsidies and food stamps programs are not immediately affected by the expiration, key conservation programs within the bill to help farmers conserve wildlife habitat, including Conservation Reserve Program, Wetlands Reserve Program and Grasslands Reserve Program, will no longer be available.

“Outdoor recreation, including hunting and bird watching, contributes $646 billion to the U.S. economy each year. The industry also creates 6.1 million American jobs – more than the oil and gas, finance or real estate sectors,” the letter notes. “Conservation measures in the Senate farm bill, like re-coupling conservation compliance to crop insurance and a national Sodsaver program, are critical to ensuring this positive economic impact continues.” 

With both the House and Senate having passed legislation to reauthorize the major parts of the farm bill, the two bodies are now able to appoint conferees to negotiate a conference report that would pass Congress and be signed by the president. The Senate has appointed  Democratic and Republican conferees while the House has not yet appointed its conferees. Unfortunately, it appears unlikely either body will move forward in the near future as matters related to the government shutdown and legislation to raise the debt ceiling have taken precedent.

The Ecological Society of America recently issued an action alert encouraging its members to voice their support for key farm bill conservation programs. For additional information, see the Sept. 13 edition of ESA Policy News: http://www.esa.org/esa/?p=9327

The Ducks Unlimited organizational letter is available here:

http://www.ducks.org/farm-bill/bird-conservation-organizations-send-letter-to-lawmakers-asking-for-fiveyear-farm-bill

EPA: INSPECTOR GENERAL FINDS NO EVIDENCE OF RULEBREAKING IN EMAIL SCANDAL

 

On Sept. 30, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) independent Office of the Inspector General (IG) released a report in response to a congressional inquiry The report found “no evidence that the EPA used, promoted or encouraged the use of private ‘non-governmental’ email accounts to circumvent records management responsibilities or reprimanded, counseled or took administrative actions against personnel for using private email or alias accounts for conducting official government business.”

The report was conducted in response to an inquiry from senior Republican members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. The Republicans were concerned over former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson’s use of a separate email address under the name “Richard Windsor” to conduct official government business. They contended that the use of such emails skirts Freedom of Information Act requirements and procedures that ensure tracking and storage of official correspondence.

The IG report concludes that the use of a separate email account has been commonplace among EPA officials in the past to manage high volumes of email and the practice is not limited to senior officials, noting “it is not practical to completely eliminate the use of private email accounts.” The report did, however, outline of series of recommendations to improve employee training of record management practices and establish a consistent system for creating records for the secondary emails. The IG notes that EPA has “either completed recommended actions or plans to take corrective actions to address our findings.”

House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) released a statement responding to the report. “The IG’s report found that the EPA has significant work to do if it wants to ensure transparency and regain the public’s trust,” said Smith. “I agree with these findings and hope that senior EPA officials take them to heart.”

The full report is available here: http://www.epa.gov/oig/reports/2013/20130926-13-P-0433.pdf

CLIMATE CHANGE: LA TIMES REFUSES TO PRINT LETTERS FROM SKEPTICS

In describing an editorial policy related to some letters to the editor on the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), Los Angeles Times letters editor Paul Thornton asserted that his newspaper will not print letters to the editor from individuals who deny the human role in climate change, stating that letters that have an untrue basis do not get printed.

Thornton’s original editorial references letters to the editor that claimed the healthcare law should allow exemptions for citizens in the same fashion it does for the president and Congress. The piece received outrage from the conservative blogosphere. However, the outrage largely did not focus on the LA Times’ explanation for why the president and Congress were not receiving special treatment under the law. Instead, according to Thorton, the brunt of the disdain was directed toward his brief single sentence reference to climate change.

“Before going into some detail about why these letters don’t make it into our pages, I’ll concede that, aside from my easily passing the Advanced Placement biology exam in high school, my science credentials are lacking,” Thornton retorts. “I’m no expert when it comes to our planet’s complex climate processes or any scientific field. Consequently, when deciding which letters should run among hundreds on such weighty matters as climate change, I must rely on the experts — in other words, those scientists with advanced degrees who undertake tedious research and rigorous peer review.”

Thornton goes on to reference the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that concluded with 95 percent certainty that human activity is linked to climate change before concluding that “errors of fact” do not belong on the paper’s letters page. Saying ‘there’s no sign humans have caused climate change’ is not stating an opinion, it’s asserting a factual inaccuracy.”

View the full climate change editorial here:

http://www.latimes.com/opinion/opinion-la/la-ol-climate-change-letters-20131008,0,871615.story

The original piece is available here:

http://www.latimes.com/opinion/letters/la-le-1005-shutdown-obamacare-mailbag-20131005,0,3748083.story

 


 Sources: American Association for the Advancement of Science, ClimateWire, Ducks Unlimited, Energy and Environment Daily, E&E News PM, Environmental Protection Agency, Greenwire, the Hill, House Science, Space and Technology Committee, Humane Society, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, POLITICO, Reuters, Roll Call, US Department of Interior, the Washington Post, the White House

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