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Policy News Update

August 4, 2011

In this issue: [Contract All : Expand All]

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.

Both House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) urged their colleagues, somewhat begrudgingly, to support the measure. Leader Pelosi touted the Democrats’ success in preventing benefit cuts to core safety-net entitlement programs, including Medicaid and Social Security and called upon her members to be mindful of the detriments of a U.S. default. A large number of Democrats, however, ultimately voted against the measure, citing a lack of “shared sacrifice,” namely tax increases on wealthy Americans.

The bill passed the House August 1 by a vote of 269-161. Sixty-six Republicans voted against the measure while Democrats were evenly split, 95-95. The vote also marked the return of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) who, before a near-fatal gunshot wound in January of this year, had been appointed to serve as the ranking member of the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics. The Senate took up the bill the next day and passed it by a vote of 74-26, with 19 Republicans, six Democrats and Independent Bernie Sanders (VT) opposing the measure.

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.

The committee’s legislation, which can include entitlements and revenues, will be guaranteed an up-or-down vote in both chambers, without amendments, by December 23. If the committee’s recommendations achieve at least $1.5 trillion and are enacted by Congress, the debt ceiling will be raised by $1.5 trillion. If the committee’s bill is enacted and produces between $1.2 trillion and $1.5 trillion, the debt limit will be raised dollar-for-dollar. If the committee fails to produce a bill, its bill is not enacted, or it produces less than $1.2 trillion, the debt limit will increase by $1.2 trillion.

Further, if the joint committee fails to come to a majority agreement on recommendations that achieve at least $1.2 trillion or Congress fails to enact recommendations that produce at least that amount by Jan. 15, 2012, an automatic “trigger” will enforce across-the-board spending cuts, 50 percent from defense spending and 50 percent from non-defense discretionary spending and mandatory spending programs. Social Security, Medicaid and veterans’ benefits would be exempt from such cuts, although Medicare would not be totally exempt.

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.

Chairman John Fleming (R-LA) noted that private matching funds far exceed federal investment in these initiatives and asked Joseph Hosmer, President of the Safari Club International Foundation, whether he foresaw a point where federal investment was no longer necessary. Hosmer responded that these funding investments have significant impacts on some of the most impoverished parts of the world and stated the federal investment gives the programs credibility in a similar fashion to the way a large corporate sponsor does for such initiatives in the business world.

Congress has appropriated some $90 million for the international conservation funds since their establishment in 1988. The federal government has used that money to leverage more than $185 million in private matching funds. While talking of the current size of the federal deficit, Chairman Fleming noted that “we get tremendous benefits from what is relatively a low amount of expenditures, compared to everything else. Everything around here starts with a 'b' or a 't.' It's always nice to see one that starts with an 'm,'" he commented.

The hearing’s political tone was rare in the sense that all the panel witnesses were unanimous in expressing support of the legislation in discussion. The star attraction of the hearing was undoubtedly Ian Somerhalder, a Louisiana native testifying in his capacity as Celebrity Spokesman for the Multinational Species Conservation Fund Coalition. The young actor is better known for his starring role on the TV drama “the Vampire Diaries” and a number of Hollywood films. Chairman Fleming noted that correspondence was also received in support of the legislation by Jane Goodall and Jack Hanna.

Other witnesses included Teiko Saito, Assistant Director for International Affairs of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; John Robinson, Executive Vice President for Conservation Science with the Wildlife Conservation Society; Tara Stoinski, Chair of Research and Conservation for the Diana Fossey Gorilla Fund International and Manager of Conservation Partnerships with Zoo Atlanta; and Carlos Diez, National Coordinator of the Marine Turtle Project Program with the Puerto Rico Natural Resources Agency.

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 well­being 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 well­being 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

CURRENT POLICY

CURRENT POLICY

Introduced in the House

H.R. 2657, the Refuge From Cruel Trapping Act – Introduced July 26 by Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), the bill would end the use of body-gripping traps in the National Wildlife Refuge System. The bill exempts caged traps and box traps. The bill has 21 original cosponsors, all Democrats and has been referred to the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries, Oceans, Wildlife and Insular Affairs.

H.R. 2706, the Billfish Conservation Act – Introduced July 29 by Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), the bill would prohibit the sale of several species of billfish. The International Union for Conservation of Nature recently released a report noting that several species that would be protected under the bill, including the blue marlin, white marlin and the striped marlin are endangered. The bill has been referred to the House Natural Resources Committee.

H.R. 2738, the Water Infrastructure Resiliency and Sustainability Act of 2011 – Introduced Aug. 1 by Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA), the bill would establish a program of awarding grants to owners or operators of water systems for the purpose of protecting the nation’s water supply against the effects of climate change. The bill has nine original cosponsors, all Democrats. The bill has been referred to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, the House Natural Resources Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

H.R. 2782, the Wind Energy Research and Development Act – Introduced Aug. 1 by Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY), the bill would call on the Secretary of Energy to carry out a program to improve investment in wind energy research and development. The bill has been referred to the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

Considered by House Committee/Subcommittee

H.R.1581, the Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act of 2011 – Introduced by Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the bill would release several million acres of protected public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management into local management plans, potentially opening them to timber harvests, oil and gas development, motorized recreation and other uses. The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands held a hearing on the bill July 26.

Approved by House Committee/Subcommittee

H.R. 2484, the Harmful Algal Blooms and Hypoxia Research and Control Amendments Act of 2011 – Introduced by House Space, Science and Technology Energy and Environment Subcommittee Chairman Andy Harris (R-MD), the bill authorizes $18 million annually for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and $2.7 million annually for the Environmental Protection Agency to implement a targeted research plan to improve efforts to monitor, prevent, mitigate and control both marine and fresh water algal bloom and hypoxia events. The House Science Space and Technology Committee approved the bill by a party-line vote of 20-15 on July 28. Committee Democrats, criticizing the bill for reducing funding in the bill below Fiscal Year 2008 spending levels, introduced a number of amendments to increase funding, all of which failed.

Introduced in the Senate

S. 1455, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act Amendments Act of 2011 - Introduced August 1 by Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), the bill would authorize certified states and Indian tribes to use money from the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund for cleanup of hardrock and coal mining. It would also extend liability protection to certified states and Indian tribes carrying out approved abandoned mine reclamation programs.

Considered by Senate Committee

On August 3, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee met to review five public land and wilderness bills:

S. 1024, the Organ Mountains-Dona Ana County Conservation and Protection Act – Introduced by Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-MN), the bill would designate over 240,000 acres in New Mexico’s Organ Mountains as federally-protected wilderness.

S. 1090, the Tennessee Wilderness Act – Introduced by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the bill would designate land in Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee as federally-protected wilderness.

S. 1144, the Soda Ash Competition Act - Introduced by Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR), the bill would keep the royalty rate for soda ash at two percent until 2016. The measure is an effort to compete with China, which is actively promoting its own production of soda ash -- used as a food additive and for making glass. Companion legislation (H.R. 1192) has been introduced in the House by Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY). The Green River Basin in Sweetwater County, WY, has the world's largest deposit of trona, a mineral mined for soda ash.

S. 1149, the Geothermal Production Expansion Act – Introduced by Subcommittee Chairman Wyden, the bill would allow noncompetitive leasing at fair-market value of lands surrounding a geothermal tract, rather than subjecting the lands to potential speculative bidders.

S. 1344, the Arizona Wallow Fire Recovery and Monitoring Act – Introduced by Sens. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and John McCain (R-AZ), the bill would expedite the removal of hazardous, dead and dying trees near communities affected by a recent Wallow fire in Arizona. The bill also contains provisions to expedite environmental appeals and narrow the scope of judicial reviews.


Sources: Energy and Environment Daily, E&E News PM, the Environmental Protection Agency, Greenwire, the Hill, House Natural Resources Committee, House Science, Space and Technology Committee, POLITICO, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the Washington Post, the White House

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