ESA Policy News: January 4

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here.

BUDGET: CONGRESS PASSES LEGISLATION TO DELAY SEQUESTRATION, EXTEND TAX CUTS

After an extended period of partisan gridlock, Congress on Jan. 1 passed legislation to address “the fiscal cliff.” The term applied largely to automatic cuts to federal agencies that were set to kick in this month as well as a number of tax cuts and credits that were to expire Dec. 31, 2012.

The American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 punts action on the sequestration (the automatic cuts to military and non-defense discretionary spending) by two months into March. This is paid for with $24 billion in offsets, half by lowering caps on overall defense and non-defense discretionary spending by $12 billion for the next two years and the other half by revenue changes to Individual Retirement Accounts that raise $12 billion in revenue. The bill makes permanent the Bush tax cuts for individuals making under $400,000 and families making under $450,000. It also permanently fixes the Alternative Minimum Tax by indexing for inflation, delays Medicare physician payment cuts for a year and extends unemployment benefits for a year in addition to extending other tax provisions. A wind energy tax credit is also extended for a full year under the agreement.

The new law also includes a nine-month extension of the farm bill for several key provisions, including one to prevent milk prices from rising substantially. However, the law lacks an extension of mandatory funding for energy programs, its conservation title or research into organic crops, according to Senate leaders.

While the fiscal deal resolves much of the immediate economic uncertainty related to taxes, the federal spending aspects of the fiscal cliff have yet to be resolved.

Important Upcoming deadlines:

  • Sequestration – Across-the-board cuts of eight percent to all federal agencies have been delayed to now go into effect on March 1 unless Congress can come up with a plan to reduce the federal deficit by $1.2 trillion.
  • Debt ceiling – A deal on budget sequestration may now have to include provisions to address the federal debt limit. The existing spending limit was reached Dec. 31, but the US Department of Treasury has enacted “extraordinary measures” that will extend the federal government’s borrowing authority until roughly late February or early March, basically around the same time that legislation to address sequestration would be needed. Congressional Republicans are vowing to ensure that any increase in the debt limit be tied to significant cuts in federal spending.
  • FY 2013 appropriations – Fiscal Year 2013 appropriations must also be addressed. The Continuing Resolution to fund the government will run out March 27. Ergo, Congress must pass a new appropriations bill before then to prevent or forestall a government shutdown.

DISASTER RELIEF: HOUSE PASSES LEGISLATION TO AID VICTIMS OF SANDY

Amid bipartisan consternation that the 112th Congress did not pass disaster relief before it adjourned, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) held a vote this week on the first of several bills to provide federal assistance to areas affected by Hurricane Sandy. The bill constitutes the first major piece of legislation to pass the 113th Congress, which convened Thursday, Jan. 3.

Last month, the Senate had passed a more comprehensive $60.4 billion Sandy bill by a vote of 62-32, but House members objected to its price tag. There is speculation that, from a political standpoint, Speaker Boehner felt it would be unwise to ask his conference to vote on such a massive funding bill so soon after passing the Senate fiscal cliff compromise, which included tax increases and no significant spending cuts. However, this week, the speaker announced that the House would take up Sandy relief legislation. The timely turnaround is partially attributable to vocal criticism from prominent Northeast Republicans, including Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) and Rep. Peter King (R-NY), who threatened to withhold voting to re-elect Boehner as Speaker of the House this week if the House did not act.

On Jan. 4, the House passed H.R. 41, a bill to provide $9.7 billion in additional borrowing authority for the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). The program is expected to reach its ceiling between Jan. 7-9, 2013. Borrowing authority for NFIP is currently capped at $20.725 billion. The additional funds will help the Federal Emergency Management Agency pay flood insurance claims related to Hurricane Sandy. The increase was included in the comprehensive Senate bill. The bill passed the House by a vote of 354-67. All 67 opposing votes came from Republicans, somewhat validating Speaker Boehner’s trepidation in taking up a comprehensive funding bill for Sandy relief in the House.  The Senate is expected to pass the bill by unanimous consent.

EPA: ADMINISTRATOR LISA JACKSON ANNOUNCES DEPARTURE

In late December, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson announced that she plans to depart the administration this year after four years with the agency. Jackson will leave after the president’s State of the Union address.

In lieu of significant action by Congress to address climate change or other environmental issues, the agency often led the way in implementing a number of key efforts to protect the environment. EPA’s accomplishments during Jackson’s tenure include the nation’s first greenhouse gas regulations, new vehicle fuel economy standards and initiatives to reduce mercury emissions to preserve the nation’s potable water resources. Jackson’s  efforts also brought her into constant court litigation with industry groups, including those in favor of mountain-top removal mining.

According to the White House, Deputy Administrator Robert Perciasepe is set to take over as acting administrator if a successor has not been confirmed upon Jackson’s departure. Perciasepe, who was confirmed by the Senate during the Clinton administration, is also a leading candidate to succeed Jackson. Another is Gina McCarthy, Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. Additional potential nominees include California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols, Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Daniel Esty (also considered a candidate for Energy Secretary if Steven Chu resigns) and Kathleen McGinty, who chaired the White House Council on Environmental Quality under former President Clinton.

NOAA: ARCTIC SEALS GARNER FEDERAL PROTECTION

On Dec. 21, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced it has finalized a federal protection listing for two species of Arctic seals.

Two distinct population segments of bearded seals and three subspecies of ringed seals will now be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A fourth arctic ringed seal subspecies in the Ladoga region will be classified as endangered. NOAA scientists concluded that a probable decrease in sea ice in the region later this century will likely cause these seal populations to decline.

The announcement coincided with a court-ordered deadline spurred by a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity. For additional information click here.

POLICY ENGAGEMENT: DEADLINE NEAR TO APPLY FOR ESA GRAD STUDENT POLICY AWARD

The Ecological Society of America is accepting applications for its annual Graduate Student Policy Award until close of business Monday, January 7, 2013.

This annual award, offered to up to three ESA graduate students, provides hands-on science policy experience including policy training and interacting with congressional decision-makers, federal agency officials, and others engaged in science and public policy.

GSPA winners participate in the annual Congressional Visits Day, a two-day event that will be held on April 10 and 11, 2013. ESA covers travel and lodging expenses associated with this event for all GSPA recipients. ESA is co-organizer of Congressional Visits Day, sponsored by the Biological Ecological Sciences Coalition to promote federal investment in the biological sciences, particularly through the National Science Foundation.

For more information on how to apply, click here.

Author: Terence Houston

Science Policy Analyst for ESA.

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