May 23, 2008

In This Issue

AGRICULTURE: Farm bill veto override process continues amidst clerical blunder

The Senate joined the House May 22 in voting to overturn the President’s veto of the five-year farm bill, despite questions over a missing section of the bill.

The 82-13 vote in the Senate enacted more than 90 percent of the five-year farm bill into law. Left out of the mix was assistance for the U.S. softwood lumber industry — part of the trade title Democrats said they inadvertently omitted due to a clerical error when the bill was originally sent to the President.

“I want to make sure there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind,” Senate Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) said on the floor at the conclusion of the vote. “Fourteen of the fifteen titles in this farm bill are now law.”

Congress approved the 34-page trade title as part of the mammoth farm bill conference report the week of May 12, but it was missing from the version that Bush vetoed. The omission will require lawmakers to send another bill to Bush next month to enact the international food aid program and the certification program for softwood lumber that were included in the trade title.

Despite complaints from some Republicans that the action could violate the Constitution and invite legal challenges, the farm bill veto override saw strong votes of support in both the House and Senate. The House voted 316-108 on May 21 to override the veto. Both chambers were well above the two-thirds margin needed to overturn a veto.

The farm bill vote was the second time lawmakers have been able to outweigh Bush in the past eight years. The only other override came for the Water Resources Development Act last year.

More than half of farm bill funding goes to food stamps and other nutrition programs. It also includes more than $4 billion in new investment for conservation programs, new support programs for fruit and vegetable growers and organic farmers, incentives intended to spur cellulosic ethanol and the extension of most crop support programs.

Lawmakers will now seek to take up the trade title on its own or vote again on the entire farm bill when they return from the Memorial Day recess. The House voted again May 22 and passed all 15 titles of the farm bill — sending that bill to the Senate as an option to fix the error.

Re-passage of the farm bill may force them to go through the motions of the veto and override process again, but this time with all of the papers.

CLIMATE: Boxer substitute offers states a soft landing to give up cap-and-trade programs

New Senate global warming legislation released May 21 includes several incentives aimed at encouraging more than a dozen states to disband their own climate efforts and join the federal program.

The substitute climate bill from Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and John Warner (R-VA) offers a soft landing to the states that have taken a leadership role on the issue, including California, New York and Florida.

Among other things, the states would have access to more than $560 billion in free allowances over the next four decades if they discontinue their own cap-and-trade programs in deference to a similar federal system that would be up and running in 2012.

Also, companies that are holding allowances or have purchased offset project credits for compliance with a state program could redeem those credits in the federal program.

No state would be allowed to set greenhouse gas limits weaker than the federal policy. Boxer has been an outspoken advocate of states’ rights but also is under pressure to unravel the growing patchwork of policies that have many industries concerned about doing business across state lines.

ENDANGERED SPECIES: Interior lists polar bears as threatened

The Interior Department declared the polar bear a threatened species May 14, blaming the loss of sea ice for the species’ decline.

The ruling will allow the United States to “reduce avoidable losses of polar bears” but will not allow the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions linked to warming temperatures, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said.

“That would be a totally inappropriate use of the Endangered Species Act,” Kempthorne said. “ESA is not the right tool to set U.S. climate policy.”

To prevent misuse of the law, Kempthorne said he would impose a rule that he said would protect the bear but allow continued development of natural resources in the Arctic.

But Kassie Siegel, Climate Program Director with the Center for Biological Diversity, said the Endangered Species Act requires federal agencies to protect the listed species and their habitats, making sure nothing they authorize, fund or carry out harms the species — such as allowing for continued greenhouse gas emissions at high levels.

Encouraging the Fish and Wildlife Service to use the “best scientific data available today,” Kempthorne said the agency would not make connections between the decline of the species and its habitat and greenhouse gas emissions from specific facilities, development projects or government actions.

The Fish and Wildlife Service was under a court-imposed deadline to decide on the polar bear listing after the agency missed the original deadline for a decision in January. Kempthorne said the January postponement was necessary because the agency needed time to complete its analysis of the scientific data.

Kempthorne said the decision was not postponed to allow time for the February oil-and-gas lease sale to take place in polar bear habitat, the Chukchi Sea basin.

The new ruling accompanies a Canadian draft proposal to list polar bears as a species of special concern, a category of protection that the United States does not have. The Canadian ruling will allow for continued polar bear hunting by subsistence and commercial hunters in Canada. Polar bear hunting in Alaska is illegal.

ENDANGERED SPECIES: Political influence on species listings may be wider than previously thought

Problems with political influence on endangered species decisions may be bigger than the Interior Department has recognized, despite efforts made to clean up corruption at the agency, according to a new federal investigation.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found Interior has come up short in its effort to try to crack down on political meddling in scientific decisions.

The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has been reviewing several Endangered Species Act decisions that may have been inappropriately influenced by former Interior political appointee Julie MacDonald.

FWS decided to revisit seven endangered species-related decisions in the wake of the scandal caused by MacDonald, the former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks.

MacDonald resigned one year ago, after Interior Inspector General Earl Devaney issued a report that found she had violated ethics rules, edited scientific decisions on endangered species issues and passed internal agency information to outside parties suing the department.

But the scope of that review was likely too small, according to Robin Nazzaro, the head of GAO’s Natural Resources and Environment division. MacDonald’s imprint may be on many other species decisions not studied. Also, other political appointees still employed at the Department could be exerting undue political influence.

“Questions remain about the extent to which Interior officials other than Ms. MacDonald may have inappropriately influenced ESA decisions and whether broader ESA policies should be revisited,” Nazzaro told the House Natural Resources Committee on May 21.

Republicans argued that the greater flaw is with the Endangered Species Act itself and blamed Democrats for blocking previous efforts in the GOP Congress to revise the act.

NOAA: Agency planning 'National Climate Service'

To relieve a climate research tangle involving 13 federal agencies, the head of the nation’s weather agency is weighing the idea of consolidating some of it in a new “National Climate Service.”

The new office would support climate modeling and research now handled by several federal agencies, serving as the “government spokesman” on climate change. Conrad Lautenbacher, Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), told reporters that it would not have the ability to create or enforce federal regulations. Lautenbacher said his model for the climate service is the National Weather Service, which is part of NOAA.

The NOAA Chief said his enthusiasm for a National Climate Service stems in part from his frustration with the $1.7 billion Climate Change Science Program, which spans 13 federal agencies.

A key difference between it and the National Weather Service is that NOAA officials do not believe the National Climate Service should be exempt from the Data Quality Act, a controversial statute that requires agencies to ensure the integrity of information they use and distribute. The law allows outside parties to petition to force the correction of information they believe is wrong.

The National Weather Service is exempt from the law because it provides critical “real-time” information.

Federal employees of the existing Climate Change Science Program cited difficulty complying with the law as one reason for a massive delay in issuing 21 planned reports on climate change, according to a National Academy of Sciences report issued last year.

EDUCATION: eSTEM Education bill introduced

On May 21, Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA), along with Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), introduced the “Enhancing Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education (eSTEM) Act of 2008.

The eSTEM Act of 2008 is a response to findings of the Academic Competitiveness Council’s (ACC) May 2007 report, which stated that in 2006 the U.S. sponsored 105 STEM education programs at a dozen different federal agencies. These programs devote approximately $3.12 billion to STEM education activities spanning pre-kindergarten through postgraduate education and outreach. The report showed that many of these agencies do not share information or work collaboratively on similar programs.

The House (H.R. 6104) and Senate (S. 3047) versions of the bill are very similar according to both Honda and Obama’s offices. Both would aim to, as stated in the full title of Honda’s version, “provide for the coordination of the Nation’s science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education initiatives.” The legislation would attempt to do this through the development of the following four initiatives:

  • “Committee on STEM Education” at the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to oversee coordination of Federal STEM education programs;
  • “Office of STEM Education” and new Assistant Secretary for STEM Education position at Department of Education;
  • “State Consortium on STEM Education” to bring together stakeholders to better coordinate STEM education between participating states; and
  • “National STEM Education Research Repository” to improve dissemination of research and promising practices for STEM education.

Sources: Environment and Energy Daily, Greenwire, Land Letter, and the Triangle Coalition for Science and Technology Education Legislative News.