October 24, 2013

In this Issue

BUDGET: GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN ENDS, DEAL PUNTS FISCAL BATTLES UNTIL EARLY 2014

In the closing hours of Oct. 16, Congress passed a deal to reopen the federal government through Jan. 15 and allow the president to temporarily suspend the debt ceiling until Feb. 7. Under the agreement, which was signed by the president, Congress can only reject the president’s temporary ability to suspend the debt ceiling with a two-thirds disapproval vote.

The continuing resolution continues the previously agreed upon Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 sequester spending levels of $986 billion (favored by the House) into the first few months of FY 2014. However, Congressional Republicans backed down on their initial assistance that the bill must include provisions to defund the Affordable Care Act after weeks of dwindling public poll numbers. The bill does include a provision requiring verification of the income claims for people applying for federal health insurance subsidies, though Senate Democratic leaders contend this merely helps enforce existing law.

The bill passed the Senate with a robust 81-18 vote and the House by a vote of 285-144. All opposing votes in both chambers came from Republicans. All major members of the House Republican leadership team, including Speaker John Boehner (OH), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (VA) and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (CA), voted for the compromise legislation. However, a majority of the Republican conference voted against the bill (144 Republicans opposed it, 87 supported it), meaning Speaker Boehner had to rely on the unified support of Democrats, shored up by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (CA).

Several committee chairmen, traditionally in lockstep with House leadership, split in their support for the deal. House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-CA) and Commerce, Justice and Science Subcommittee Chairman Frank Wolf (R-VA) endorsed the deal. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), a potential 2016 presidential contender, opposed the bill. House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) also opposed the deal.

While the deal was largely free of the typical controversial riders that Republicans had clamored for, it does include several added provisions favored by members of both major parties. The deal includes $600 million for the US Forest Service and $36 million for the Department of Interior to shore up funding expended on summer wildfires. The bill also increases spending authority by $1.2 billion for the Olmsted dam project along the Illinois-Kentucky border, a project favored by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

Federal workers returning to work Oct. 17 after a two week furlough found a pleasant surprise in the contents of the shutdown compromise. Among its provisions, the deal included a one percent pay increase for federal workers, the first increase authorized by Congress since 2010. The deal also guaranteed that all federal employees would be granted back pay compensation for the days they were furloughed.

A key aspect of the deal may help decide how Congress handles funding for the remainder of FY 2014 when it approaches the new January and February deadlines. Part of the deal requires that House and Senate to go to conference on a FY 2014 budget. The conference committee would have to report back an agreement on the budget by Dec. 13. This would provide another opportunity for Congress to strike a “grand bargain” on deficit reduction. Such a deficit reduction agreement would (ideally) fully restore discretionary spending to its pre-sequester levels. The budget conference committee is expected to begin talks Oct. 30.

However, there is no enforcement mechanism to incentivize lawmakers to meet the deadline and the partisan political climate that has kept members from reaching consensus on mandatory spending cuts or tax revenue increases generally remains unchanged. If the budget committee fails to strike an agreement by Dec. 13, it will likely once again fall to House and Senate leaders in conjunction with the president to work out a deficit reduction deal. If this group fails, it will ultimately fall on appropriators to work on a plan to continue funding the government for FY 2014 in line with the post-sequestration spending caps, putting long-term domestic programs, including research and conservation, at further risk for unsustainable spending reductions.

HOUSE: GOP WATER BILL PASSES, GARNERS RARE WHITE HOUSE ENDORSEMENT

 

On Oct. 23, the US House of Representatives passed H.R. 3080, the Water Resources Reform and Development Act. The bill, sponsored by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) and Ranking Member Nick Rahall (D-VA), passed by a vote of 417-3.

The $8.2 billion bill reauthorizes funding for Army Corps of Engineers projects related to levees, dams, ecosystem restoration and flood control and other issues related to water resources infrastructure. In an attempt to increase Republican support, the bill includes a bill to deauthorize (cancel) $12 billion among the oldest and most backlogged water resources projects, a provision the White House endorsed in its official Statement of Administration Policy supporting the bill. In the statement, the White House notes the Army Corps currently endures a $60 billion construction backlog in its operation and maintenance infrastructure costs.  

The White House did express concerns with certain provisions of the bill that would streamline environmental reviews, asserting “the bill includes provisions that could constrain science-based decision making, increase litigation risk, and undermine the integrity of several foundational environmental laws, including the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act.” In its policy statement on the bill, the administration noted its existing work to improve the federal permitting and review process and urged Congress to make use of the existing federal environmental review framework and improve environmental stewardship.

Traditionally, water resources authorization bills draw overwhelming bipartisan support. The 2007 Water Resources Development Act was enacted over a presidential veto with over two-thirds of members in both chambers voting for the measure. The 2013 bill is endorsed by the National Association of Manufacturers and the US Chamber of Commerce. Heritage Action, however, strongly opposed the bill due to its overall spending levels. The House Rules Committee only allowed debate on 24 of the 98 amendments submitted, forgoing debate on contentious amendments, such as one to lift a restriction on carrying firearms at Army Corps.-managed sites.

The House bill is mostly a revised version of the Water Resources Development Act that passed the Senate in May by a vote of 83-14. The Senate bill differs in that it authorizes $12.2 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The Senate bill also grants more authority for approval of water resources projects to the administration while the House bill limits authority to Congress. The House bill also lacks language favored by Louisiana Senators to speed work on the “Morganza to the Gulf” flood protection project in southern Louisiana. Senator David Vitter (R-LA) is also the senior Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which has primary jurisdiction over water resources legislation and would likely be on the conference committee that negotiates a final version of the bill.

PUBLIC COMMENT OPPORTUNITY: FOREST SERVICE PUBLISHES ECOLOGICAL RESTORATION RULE

 

The US Forest has announced the publication of a final rule improving the agency’s ability to restore lands affected by various forms of man-made infrastructure, including roadways, trails, levees and drainage mechanisms. The rule establishes three new categorical exclusions (CEs) for hydrologic, aquatic and landscape restoration activities.

The Forest Service prepares 2,000-2,500 categorical exclusions and 400 environmental assessments per year. Document preparation for categorical exclusions generally take one-third less time than environmental assessments as these assessments can run hundreds of pages long. The use of categorical exclusions allows FS to reduce the resources spent analyzing proposals that do not have potentially significant environmental impacts and more efficiently refocus resources on proposals that do. The categorical exclusions will be used for activities such as removing, replacing or modifying dikes, drainage tiles, ditches, pipes and other related infrastructure.

Comments on the final rule must be received by Nov. 22, 2013. For additional information on the rule as well as direction on how to comment, click here: http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2013-09-12/pdf/2013-22149.pdf

For additional questions on the rule, click here:

http://www.fs.fed.us/emc/nepa/restorationCE/includes/Restoration_CE_QAs.pdf

PUBLIC COMMENT OPPORTUNITY: FEDERAL PROTECTIONS PROPOSED FOR RIVER-DWELLING CUCKOO

 

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has announced that it has proposed listing the Western yellow-billed cuckoo as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

The cuckoo reportedly nests in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. The proposed listing is due to the continued decline of its nesting habitat along rivers and streams from a wide range of factors, including agriculture, overgrazing, urban and transportation infrastructure, and increased incidence of wildfires, according to FWS.

Legal settlements with environmental groups in 2011 prompted the agency to issue a final listing determination by the end of last month.

Public comments are being accepted through Dec. 2, 2013. For additional information on the proposed listing as well as direction on how to comment, click here: http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2013-10-03/pdf/2013-23725.pdf

FWS: CALIFORNIA SEABIRD DOES NOT WARRANT FEDERAL PROTECTION

On Oct. 22, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced it had rejected a petition to list the shy storm petrel as a protected species under the Endangered Species Act. The agency concluded that, while climate change may affect individual birds in certain locations, it is not impacting the species as a whole. The agency also concluded there has not been a change in the birds’ historical range to warrant listing under the Act.

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) first petitioned to list the species for federal protection in 2007. CBD, in response to the ruling, contended that FWS did not take into account documented decreases in populations on Farallon Islands off San Francisco between 1972-1992 as well as a population decline in Northern California documented in a study between 1986-2006. According to CBD, these declines prompted the petrel’s inclusion on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s list of endangered species.

View the full announcement here:

https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2013/10/22/2013-24170/endangered-and-threatened-wildlife-and-plants-12-month-finding-on-a-petition-to-list-ashy

NSF: NEW TOOLS LAUNCHED TO TRACK STEM EDUCATION, RESEARCH

The National Science Foundation has announced two new tools for tracking data and trends in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education and research.

The two new tools are based on the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators (SEI) biennial report. The “STEM Education Data and Trends” tool provides STEM Education information in a user-friendly graphical interface. The SEI app for iPad” tool grants mobile access to several SEI related publications and policy reports.

To view the STEM data trends tool, click here: http://www.nsf.gov/nsb/sei/edTool/

To view the SEI app, click here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/science-engineering-indicators/id688898067

ESA recently published an EcoTone blog on STEM education viewable here:

http://www.esa.org/esablog/ecologist-2/ecology-education/how-are-we-doing-in-u-s-stem-education-a-timeline/

 


Sources:  ClimateWire, Energy and Environment Daily, E&E News PM, Greenwire, the Hill, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Science Foundation, POLITICO, Roll Call, US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Washington Post, the White House

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