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Political Scene

A Look Back at the 109th Congress: Like Oil and Water
Linda Rowan

The outgoing 109th Congress has been noted as a very partisan group, and like oil and water, the two parties have not mixed very well. Yet, ironically, many of the issues they have been confronting over the past two years relate to two of our most important natural resources — oil and water. But while some major legislation has been passed in those arenas, Congress has been occupied largely with emergency funding and has spent little time considering longer term management of these two critical resources.

Against a backdrop of partisanship, the 109th Congress swept into office on a wave of grim events, particularly the aftermath of the Dec. 26, 2004, Indian Ocean tsunami and the continuation of the military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thus, early on, congressional deliberations were consumed by emergency legislation to fund military efforts and tsunami response.

Then, hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck the Gulf Coast in August and September 2005, respectively, causing massive flooding and disruption of the Gulf’s concentrated oil and natural gas industry. In response, Congress passed additional emergency legislation. The 109th ended up appropriating more than $300 billion, and although these funds are not counted as part of the annual federal budgets, lawmakers have been under pressure to reduce spending elsewhere over time to make up for these emergency costs.

With the hurricanes’ impacts on the oil industry, as well as the August 2006 shut-down of half of Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay oil pipeline system and continued concerns about the stability of Iraq’s oil supply and infrastructure, lawmakers could not help but be focused on petroleum. Thus, Congress held many hearings and considered some legislation to deal with geopolitical stability of oil-rich countries, oil prices, global markets, energy alternatives to oil, pipeline infrastructure and new oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and offshore. Although drilling in ANWR and in the Gulf of Mexico was repeatedly considered as amendments to bills or as separate pieces of legislation, there was never enough support for passage.

What the 109th did pass, however, was the Energy Policy Act of 2005, after four long years of deliberation. The law is focused on energy research and development and contains sections on a variety of issues, including coal technology, nuclear energy, tax incentives, energy efficiency, renewable energy and climate change technology.

The law has been criticized for not directly addressing the nation’s major energy problems, which include dependence on foreign oil, greater demand for oil, gasoline prices and environmental issues. And the act contains no provisions for drilling in ANWR, no liability protection for producers of the gasoline additive MTBE and no significant increases in energy efficiency standards for vehicles. These contentious components were removed to ensure the bill’s passage.

In the end, the bill contains no major initiatives that will change the way in which industry produces energy and the ways in which all types of consumers use the energy. Only time will tell if the energy bill has any lasting impact.

In addition to oil issues, members of the 109th Congress had water on their minds, again mostly related to hazards. After all, it was flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that caused New Orleans’ destruction, and storm surges and flooding elsewhere caused the greatest fatalities and economic losses along the Gulf Coast and farther inland. Congress had to repeatedly pass emergency legislation to loan more money to the bankrupt National Flood Insurance Program. Congress also discussed emergency preparedness and response, coastal zone management, the levee systems, water distribution projects and more hurricane research.

Also on the water topic, the 109th Congress passed the North American Wetlands Conservation Act of 2006, and the Coastal Barrier Resources Act of 2005. The first is for wetlands conservation projects in Canada, Mexico and the United States, and the second is for conservation or restoration of U.S. coastal barrier resources in the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico and Great Lakes. In addition, the 109th is very likely to pass the Water Resources Development Act of 2005. This bill authorizes Army Corps of Engineers projects for navigation, environmental or ecosystem restoration, and hurricane, flood and storm damage reduction. Despite this progress, however, no national water policy was considered to integrate and effectively manage water resources from a national and long-term perspective.

In general, Congress had a year marked by short-term decision-making, in which large emergency spending essentially maintained status quo when it came to natural hazards and energy legislation. It remains unclear whether the new laws passed by the 109th will significantly enhance long-term national resource management.

The increased fractionation within Congress that has led to such policy-making is a result of a few decades’ worth of shifts, according to a recent book The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track. In this book, congressional analysts Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute describe the growing partisan fighting and the intra-party rancor that has led to stalled legislation, a lack of meaningful deliberation, flawed policy implementation, limited oversight of the executive branch and corruption. All of these factors likely contributed to the inaction of the 109th.

Something will need to change to break this cycle and make the legislative branch a more effective tool for protecting natural resources and for preparing the nation long-term for natural and human-induced threats. Only time will tell if the legacy of the 109th Congress will be more substantial than just its record emergency spending.


Rowan is director of the American Geological Institute’s Government Affairs Program. E-mail: rowan@agiweb.org.

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