ESA Policy News: August 4

Here are some highlights from the latest Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.

NATIONAL DEBT: OBAMA SIGNS MEASURE RAISING DEBT CEILING THROUGH 2012

The week of August 2, Congress passed and the president signed a bill to increase the national debt by as much as $2.4 trillion. After weeks in which a deal between leaders of both parties appeared elusive, the deal was finally announced the weekend preceding the vote, mere days before the Department of Treasury predicted a default if the debt ceiling was not raised.

The plan implemented by Congressional leaders has the skeletal frame of a plan first proposed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in that it reduces the debt limit in phases, giving the president sole authority to increase the debt. While revenues were left off the table, the administration was able to win on its contention that the debt increase should run through the end of 2012, punting the issue through the next election. In the interim, however, the measure sets the stage for $917 billion in discretionary spending cuts to federal agencies over a 10 year period beginning in Fiscal Year (FY) 2012. It is expected that this will lead to federal agency appropriations even further below what was enacted in FY 2011.

The plan provides for debt ceiling increases in two stages: The president may request a $900 billion increase now, of which $400 billion in borrowing authority is immediately available to the U.S. Treasury. This $900 billion is subject to a resolution of disapproval in both the House and Senate. The disapproval measure would be subject to a presidential veto.  Once the debt comes within $100 billion of the debt ceiling, the president may ask for at least an additional $1.2 trillion, which could rise to $1.5 trillion if a Balanced Budget Amendment is sent to the states or the joint committee process described below enacts more than $1.5 trillion in savings.  This increase is also subject to a resolution of disapproval and can also be vetoed by the president, consequently granting him authority to raise the national debt through the end of 2012.

The second part of the plan involves up to an additional $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction, to be decided by a joint committee made up of 12 members (six from each chamber). Appointed by the House Speaker, Senate Majority Leader, Senate Minority Leader and House Minority Leader, the committee members will be tasked with developing legislation to achieve at least $1.5 trillion in future deficit reduction by Thanksgiving. The committee members must be appointed by August 16.

As part of the deal, both the House and Senate will also vote on a balanced budget constitutional amendment before the end of the year.

To view the House Roll Call vote, see: http://clerk.house.gov/evs/2011/roll690.xml.

To view the Senate Roll Call vote, see: http://www.senate.gov/legislative/LIS/roll_call_lists/roll_call_vote_cfm.cfm?congress=112&session=1&vote=00123.

APPROPRIATIONS: HOUSE VOTES TO RESTORE ENDANGERED SPECIES PROTECTIONS

On July 27, the U.S. House of Representatives approved an amendment to H.R. 2584, the Department of Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2012 that will allow the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to continue to classify new species for protection under the Endangered Species Act (E.S.A.). The amendment passed by a vote of 224-202.

The Interior bill originally included a provision to allow species to be delisted, but not added for any level of protection. Republican leaders argued that funding the E.S.A. leads to lawsuits from interest groups trying to list new species, costing the government countless sums of funding. Both House Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Mike Simpson (R-ID) and House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-WA) spoke against the amendment, sponsored by House Appropriations Committee Ranking Member Norman Dicks (D-WA).

Ultimately, however, 37 Republicans broke with their leadership to vote with all but two Democrats in favor of the amendment. The Republican support may have been buttressed by the yea votes of several key Republican committee leaders including House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (MI), House Science, Space and Technology Energy and Environment Subcommittee Chairman Andy Harris (MD) and Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Committee Chairman Frank Wolf (VA).

Despite the victory, several Members plan to continue attempts to prohibit endangered species protections for certain animals through the legislative process. Rep. Steve Pearce (R-NM) has declared his intention to put forward an amendment that would prevent an endangered species listing for the dunes sagebrush lizard. Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-TX) also intends to propose an amendment that would block protections for the lesser prairie chicken.

The House was unable to complete debate and vote on final passage of the Interior bill before it adjourned for the annual month-long August recess. To view the Roll Call vote for the Dicks amendment, see: http://clerk.house.gov/evs/2011/roll652.xml.

ENDANGERED SPECIES: CONSERVATION BILLS DRAW BIPARTISAN, HOLLYWOOD SUPPORT

On July 28, the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs held a hearing on three bipartisan bills which would extend five conservation programs to assist elephants, rhinoceros, tigers, great apes and marine turtles.

H.R. 50, the Multinational Species Conservation Funds Reauthorization Act of 2011, would extend conservation grants under the African Elephant Conservation Act, the Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Act and the Asian Elephant Conservation Act. It his opening statement, Rep. Don Young (R-AK), sponsor of the bill noted that “under the terms of the Multinational Species Conservation Funds Reauthorization Act of 2011, these three conservation laws, which are strongly supported by nearly every hunting, conservation and animal rights organization would be extended at existing funding levels for an additional five years. Each of these funds supports animals that are keystone – which means they are essential to the survival of hundreds of other species,” he said.

In his remarks, Rep. Young also borrowed a years-old quote from then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, expressing support for the African Elephant Conservation Act, stating “this is a very small amount of money, but it is symbolically very important and symbolically important in part for the signal its sends to people in Africa and Asia.” During the hearing Rep. Young stated “I am committed to reducing our staggering national debt. However, we are not going to accomplish that goal on the backs of these landmark species.”

The other bills considered during the hearing were H.R. 1760, the Great Ape Conservation Reauthorization Amendments Act of 2011, introduced by Rep. George Miller (D-CA) and H.R. 1761, the Marine Turtle Conservation Reauthorization Act of 2011, introduced by Rep. Pedro  Peirluisi (D-Puerto Rico). Interestingly, Reps. Young, Miller, and Peirluisi are all cosponsors of each other’s bills.

To view the hearing or read testimony from witnesses, see: http://naturalresources.house.gov/Calendar/EventSingle.aspx?EventID=252392.

SCIENCE: HOUSE SUBCOMMITTEE DISCUSSES NSF MERIT REVIEW PROCESS

On July 26, the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Science Education held a hearing entitled, “the Merit Review Process: Ensuring Limited Federal Resources Are Invested in the Best Science.”

All of the witnesses agreed that the merit review process at the National Science Foundation (NSF) has been proven over many decades to be a very strong system for supporting the best science, noting that is has been adopted by funding agencies around the world. “The high quality of NSF’s merit review process is recognized globally, as evidenced by the fact that it has been used as a model by countries around the world that are newly establishing their own funding agencies,” said Cora Marrett, Deputy Director of NSF.

In his opening statement, Subcommittee Chairman Mo Brooks (R-AL) noted that the goal of the hearing was to “highlight the benefits of the [NSF merit review] process, while acknowledging that no process involving human decision-making is flawless.” Chairman Brooks noted that in 1994 the National Academies touted the NSF merit review process as being among “the best procedures known for insuring the technical excellence of research projects that receive public support,” but asserted that “the process has changed since then, and we need to make sure that is still the case.”

Ranking Member Dan Lipinski (D-IL) made reference to his successful submission of a grant application to NSF as a graduate student and voiced his support for the merit review process while echoing some of the chairman’s sentiments. “I agree with the statements of all of the witnesses here today that NSF’s merit review system remains the gold standard for the world,” he said. “At the same time, I recognize that there are challenges in any system for allocating limited research dollars.  I agree with Chairman Brooks that it is our job, on this subcommittee, to hold hearings such as this one to discuss these challenges and collectively imagine how we might continue to make NSF, and the merit-review system that it manages, even stronger.”

Other witnesses during the hearing included Keith Yamamoto, Vice Chancellor for Research at the University of California San Francisco; Nancy Jackson, President of the American Chemical Society; and Jorge José, Vice President for Research at Indiana University.

In July, a number of science organizations, including the Ecological Society of America, responded to an NSF request for input on revisions to its merit review criteria. To view the letter, see: http://www.esa.org/pao/policyStatements/Letters/NSF_Merit_Review_Criteria_Letter.pdf.

To view the Research and Science Subcommittee hearing or read testimony, see: http://science.house.gov/hearing/research-and-science-education-subcommittee-hearing-merit-review-process-federal-funding.

WHITE HOUSE: REPORT CALLS FOR IMPROVED ASSESMENT OF ECOSYSTEM SERVICES

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) has released a report recommending that the federal government work to improve its efforts to assess ecosystems and the social and economic value they provide.

The report, entitled “Sustaining Environmental Capital: Protecting Society and the Economy,” recommends that the federal government, in accordance with its responsibility to strengthen the economy, institute and fund a Quadrennial Ecosystems Services Trends (QuEST) Assessment, to identify trends related to ecosystem sustainability and potential policy responses.

The report’s executive summary explains that “even as the government is rightly focused on the direct threats to the economic aspects of well¬being in the form of recession, unemployment, and the stagnation of the standard of living of the middle class, it must not fail to address the threats to both the environmental and the economic aspects of well¬being that derive from the accelerating degradation of the environmental capital—the nation’s ecosystems and the biodiversity they contain—from which flow ‘ecosystem services’ underpinning much economic activity as well as public health, safety, and environmental quality.”

The report calls for the development of more sophisticated methods to evaluate ecosystem services, such as satellite-based remote sensing of natural resource changes to improve the quality of information available. The report updates a 1998 Clinton administration PCAST report, “Teaming with Life: Investing in Science to Understand and Use America’s Living Capital.”

The report also expresses concern that few of the 55 federal environmental monitoring programs surveyed by PCAST make their data publicly available online. PCAST asserts that the money the federal government has spent to gather environmental data does little good if it is not readily available or shared with other agencies.

To view the report, see: http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/pcast_sustaining_environmental_capital_report.pdf.

Author: Terence Houston

Science Policy Analyst for ESA.

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