ESA Policy News: July 22

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

NATIONAL DEBT-CEILING DEBATE: CONSENSUS IN SIGHT, SPECIFIC PLAN REMAINS ELUSIVE

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and President Obama are unanimous in agreeing the federal deficit has to be raised before the projected August 2 deadline to avoid U.S. default on its debt. When, how and under what conditions this will occur remains murky.

Most recently, the House Republicans passed H.R. 2560, the Cut, Cap and Balance Act. The measure would cut spending in Fiscal Year 2012 by $111 billion, cap future spending at 19.9 percent of gross domestic product and allow for the debt ceiling to be increased if a balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution is approved by Congress and sent to the states.  On July 22, the measure failed to advance in the Senate with a majority of Senators agreeing to table the bill by a vote of 51-46.

On July 19, a reunited “Gang of Six,” which originally consisted of a bipartisan group of six  Senators, unveiled a plan to lower the national debt by $3.7 trillion over ten years through a combination of spending reductions as well as entitlement and revenue reforms. The plan is based on the framework of the president’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, co-chaired by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson.

Senate Democratic leaders have signaled the proposal is unlikely to be implemented by Aug. 2 for a number of reasons: 1) the Congressional Budget Office likely cannot score the bill (to determine its estimated fiscal price tag) by the deadline and 2) any legislation increasing revenue, under the U.S. Constitution, must begin in the House of Representatives. The plan has already been met with opposition by interest groups across the political spectrum wary of its tax increases and entitlement cut proposals.

Another 614-page plan, put forward by Sen. Coburn (R-OK), would trim the deficit by $9 trillion over the next ten years. The plan includes reforms to revenue, entitlements and large cuts ($974.1 billion over 10 years) to discretionary spending. This would include $346.4 billion in cuts to the Department of Agriculture, $409 billion from the Department of Education, $33.67 billion to the Environmental Protection Agency, $26.44 billion from the Department of Interior, $101.8 billion from the Department of Energy and $14.2 billion for the National Science Foundation (NSF). Much like another recent Coburn report accusing NSF of wasteful spending, the new report proposes to eliminate the agency’s Social, Behavioral and Economics Directorate. The fact that the plan also includes $1 trillion in tax increases and $1 trillion in Defense cuts makes it a tough sell to fellow Republicans while its sharp discretionary cuts and alterations to Medicare and Social Security make it a non-starter in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

One smaller scale proposal is being worked out between the two party leaders of the Senate. Majority Leader Reid (D-NV) is open to including aspects of the “Gang of Six” proposal into a measure he is working on with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). As originally proposed by McConnell, the measure would allow the president to unilaterally increase the national debt in several phases through 2012. The measure would require a two-thirds vote by both chambers to prevent the president from raising the ceiling. The proposal may include anywhere from $1.5 to $3 trillion in spending cuts, depending on whether it’s tied or incorporated into to a larger package.

While this proposal has garnered a degree of bipartisan support, some Republicans, particularly tea partiers, criticize it for simply “kicking the can down the road,” and giving the president sole authority to increase the national debt without guaranteeing multi-trillion dollar cuts in spending.. Meanwhile, some Democrats feel the measure puts political blame for increasing the national debt squarely on President Obama. These views have made the “Gang of Six” plan slightly more palatable for Members on both sides of the aisle. The McConnell-Reid measure could also take the form of a short-term stop-gap, if Congressional leaders and the White House gain confidence that a long-term deal is within reach.

After initial opposition, President Obama has now said he would sign a short-term increase in the debt limit, contingent on it being part of a long-term deal.

A basic outline of the “Gang of Six” proposal can be viewed here, or view the Sen. Coburn plan.

APPROPRIATIONS: HOUSE APPROVES ENERGY AND WATER SPENDING BILL

On July 15, the U.S. House of Representatives approved H.R. 2354, the Energy and Water Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2012. The bill provides $30.6 billion in new funding for agency programs within the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Army Corps of Engineers as well as water programs within the Department of Interior. The bill passed by a vote of 219-196.

The bill also includes a provision that would provide $1 billion in emergency funding for floods in the Mississippi and Missouri river basins at the expense of high-speed rail funds. The measure includes cuts to DOE renewable energy and research programs and also blocks funding for Obama administration efforts to expand protections for wetlands and streams.

A number of amendments trimmed funding in the bill even further or blocked additional federal agency initiatives. Among these, the House adopted by voice vote an amendment by Rep. Todd Young (R-IN) to eliminate funding for DOE employees to carry out a weatherization assistance program authorized under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Another amendment that was adopted would prohibit funding for a regulation that prevents people from carrying firearms on federal parklands, refuges and Army Corps of Engineers facilities.

APPROPRIATIONS: SCIENCE, ENVIRONMENTAL BILLS ADVANCE TO FULL HOUSE

During the week of July 13, the House Appropriations Committee cleared H.R. 2584, the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 as well as H.R. 2596 the Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS) and Related Agencies Appropriations Act for FY 2012.

The Interior appropriations bill includes $27.5 billion in funding for FY 2012 a reduction of $2.1 billion below FY 2011 and $3.8 billion below the president’s FY 2012 budget request. House Republicans added a number of statutes to the bill blocking administration initiatives. Among its provisions, the bill would prohibit the Fish and Wildlife Service from listing additional plants or animals under the Endangered Species Act. It would also prohibit the administration from imposing a ban on mining near the Grand Canyon National Park.

As approved by the full committee, the CJS bill included $50.2 billion in funding for FY 2012, $3.1 billion below FY 2011 and $7.4 billion below the president’s FY 2012 budget request. Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) was successful in restoring funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, albeit at the cost of other CJS agency programs. An amendment by the Congressman was adopted that provided an across-the-board cut to all CJS agencies of 0.1 percent for a total of $48 million, and shift those funds to NOAA’s Operations, Research, and Facilities programs. Rep. Farr asserted the amendment returns the agency to FY 2008 levels.

The White House issued a veto threat against the Interior appropriations bill, citing “ideological and political provisions that are beyond the scope of funding legislation.”

For additional information on the Interior as well as CJS bills, see the July 10 edition of ESA Policy News.

GAO: STATES FAILING TO NOTIFY EPA OF WATER CONTAMINATION

Three senior House Energy and Commerce Committee Democrats released a report highlighting that numerous states have failed to report incidents of drinking water contamination. The report, by the non-partisan Government Accountability Office, was released July 18.

According to GAO, the unreliable reporting limits the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ability to identify water systems with the most serious compliance problems and reduce the threat of public exposure to water contamination from potable sources. The report was requested by Ranking Member Henry Waxman (D-CA).

Under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), states are directed to collect and review data from community water systems, determine if violations have occurred, take enforcement action when necessary and report all violations and actions to EPA. The agency uses these data to identify water systems that have problems meeting the health standards for drinking water, so that enforcement efforts can be directed towards those systems with the most significant issues.

However, using results of audits EPA conducted in 2007 and 2009, GAO found that states underreported or misreported hundreds of violations of drinking water standards. In 2007, an audit of fourteen states (Arkansas, Arizona, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Minnesota, North Dakota, Nevada, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Utah, Virginia and Washington state (as well as Puerto Rico and the Navajo Nation) indicated that an estimated 543 health-based drinking water violations (20 percent of the total) that should have been reported to the EPA either went unreported or were inaccurately reported.

MOUNTAINTOP MINING: EPA RELEASES FINAL APPALACHIAN GUIDANCE

On July 21, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released final guidance on its interpretation of the Clean Water Act related to Appalachian mountaintop removal mining projects.

The new guidance intends to replace an interim guidance and was developed, according to EPA, after reviewing more than 60,000 public comments. The mining industry has criticized the move, asserting that the new rules are burdensome and did not go through the proper regulatory channels.

In its summary the agency stated its final guidance “retains EPA’s expectation that permits for Appalachian surface coal mining operations reflect best-available science and comply with the law, while providing additional clarity and flexibility on the use of Clean Water Act tools in protecting Appalachian streams and safeguarding the health of Appalachian communities.”

View the final guidance, or listen to a recent Ecological Society of America podcast focused on mountaintop removal, featuring recent ESA Graduate Student Policy Awardee Michael Levy.

CHEMICALS: EPA LAUNCHES EFFORT TO STRENGTHEN SCIENTIFIC TOXICITY ASSESSMENTS

On July 12, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced plans to improve its Integrated Risk Information Systems (IRIS) program. The move is a direct response to recommendations received on April 8, 2011, from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).

A NAS panel review of IRIS’s formaldehyde assessment criticized IRIS’s scientific methodologies and recommended ways IRIS should improve. NAS supported some of EPA’s findings, however, including that formaldehyde can cause irritation in humans as well as respiratory lesions and most notably cancer.

According to EPA, its improved process will include “a streamlined review schedule, ensuring that the majority of assessments will be finalized within two years of their start date, opportunities for input from EPA scientists, federal agency reviewers, and the public, and greater transparency by making the scientific studies used to develop assessments available through the Health and Environmental Research Online database.” The agency will also create a new peer consultation step early in the development of major IRIS assessments in an effort to enhance input from the scientific community as assessments are designed.

SCB, ESA, TWS LETTER TO CONGRESS: ORGANIZATIONS ASK FOR REMOVAL OF ENVIRONMENTAL RIDERS

In response to legislative riders that would block new species listings under the Endangered Species Act, the Ecological Society of America joined the Society of Conservation Biology and The Wildlife Society in a joint letter to Congress on July 22.

The letter urges lawmakers to oppose any legislation that would undercut the use of science as the basis for implementing conservation, environmental and public health laws.  “Rapid adoption of such legislation without full public notice and balanced hearings is particularly dangerous, and that is what is now being advanced in the House consideration of the Interior and several other Appropriations bills to fund the operations of the government for Fiscal Year 2012” say the three scientific membership organizations.

The joint letter notes that procedures are now being put in place at the agencies to protect the integrity of that science and that, if necessary, agency decisions are reviewed in the courts, with the active participation of experts on both sides, to determine whether that evidence and the rules it supports meet the requirements of the law. In addition to circumventing the normal review process, the organizations warn that the proposed ban on listing species as endangered or threatened could prevent emergency measures to save species such as spotted frogs that may provide new medicines to treat antibiotic-resistant microbes. View the letter here.

Author: Terence Houston

Science Policy Analyst for ESA.

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