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 Published by the American Geological Institute
February 2001
Newsmagazine of the Earth Sciences

Political Scene

The Road Ahead
by David Applegate

The new year brings with it a new order in Washington. For the first time in nearly half a century, Republicans control both houses of Congress and the presidency. During all but two of the past 20 years, one party has controlled the White House while the other has controlled either the House or Senate or both. Does the Republican hegemony mean an end to divided government and legislative gridlock?

The likely answer is no. Republicans control the House by eight seats out of 435. Control of the Senate depends on the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Dick Cheney. Having lost five Senate seats in the election, Republicans are now ten votes shy of the 60-vote supermajority needed to defeat a filibuster and hence complete action on controversial bills. In the 103rd Congress (1993-94), the lack of such a Democratic supermajority in the Senate negated the party’s control of the House and the presidency, allowing Republicans to keep mining law, Superfund, and other environmental bills from even reaching the president. Unless Republicans in the 107th Congress show a greater willingness to compromise, gridlock will remain.

That is not to say the course of the next four years will follow the one set during the past eight. Indeed, the president sets the agenda and can make unilateral changes in federal regulatory and public lands policy. This column takes a brief look at how some geoscience-related issues can be expected to play out during the new Congress.

Energy policy: A key campaign plank for George W. Bush was the need for a national energy policy. High natural gas and home heating oil prices have sustained a great deal of interest in energy issues along with a sense that something must be done. Where the Clinton administration concentrated on curbing demand, the Bush administration is likely to seek ways to enhance supply. The Bush campaign platform closely mirrored legislation introduced last Congress by Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska). That bill emphasized tax incentives, royalty reform and opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for exploration.

ANWR: A thin strip of Alaska’s Arctic coast lies astride two major debates, energy policy being one and public land access being the other. Bush has pledged to open additional onshore areas for exploration, specifically a portion of ANWR’s coastal plain. His nominee for Secretary of the Interior, former Colorado Attorney General Gale Norton, is a long-standing supporter of opening ANWR, as is Energy Secretary designee Spencer Abraham. However, efforts to open ANWR in the last Congress failed to overcome a filibuster in the Senate, and it seems unlikely that such legislation would fare any better with the Senate evenly split. Look for a possible compromise involving a shift in focus to natural gas and the possibility of opening a gas pipeline to Alaska’s North Slope.

Federal public lands: Using his authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906, President Clinton created over a dozen new national monuments and expanded several existing ones. Incoming House Resources Committee Chairman James Hansen (R-Utah) and other western Republicans have called for the new administration to undo the Clinton designations and overhaul the Antiquities Act. But reversing a national monument designation by executive order would be unprecedented and may not be politically palatable for Bush given the popularity of such designations.
 National monuments are just one of several ways that President Clinton was able to secure reforms in public land management without congressional action. Industry groups and property rights advocates are counting on Norton — a prote´ge´ of Reagan Interior Secretary James Watt — to lead efforts to reverse Clinton’s road-building moratorium and hardrock mining regulations. While the new administration is not expected to pursue the acquisition of new federal lands, Bush has pledged to use oil and gas royalty receipts to pay for improved maintenance in national parks and other public lands.

U.S. Geological Survey (USGS): The future of the USGS Biological Resources Division (BRD) is a likely topic of debate during the coming year. In a campaign speech, Bush called for returning the biologists to the Interior agencies from whence they came — principally the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — when Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt created the National Biological Survey (NBS) in 1993.

In defense of BRD, former House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee chairman Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), has written to Bush reminding him that the idea to eliminate the NBS and place biologists within the USGS was a Republican one.

Nuclear waste: Bush has pledged to base any future decisions about the Yucca Mountain high-level nuclear waste repository on science, but he is considered less likely than his predecessor to veto legislation aimed at accelerating the repository’s opening. As a senator in the last Congress, Energy Secretary nominee Abraham was a co-sponsor of such legislation. Although several of that bill’s supporters were defeated (including Abraham), it is unlikely that the Nevada senators can raise the votes necessary to sustain filibusters. The Energy Secretary is scheduled to make a site recommendation this year with a presidential decision to follow in 2002.

Environmental statutes: The last Congress spent a great deal of time wrangling over legislation to reform such statutes as Superfund, the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act all of which are long overdue for reauthorization. Perhaps the thorniest issue left for the new Congress to deal with is how to regulate Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL) to combat non-point source pollution. The fate of environmental bills in the 107th will be a key test of bipartisan spirit. On climate change, Bush has stated his opposition to the Kyoto Protocol and has encouraged additional research, but he also has expressed support for draft legislation to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.

Research funding: Over the past several years, federal civilian research funding has made substantial gains. The efforts to increase federal investment in research have been thoroughly bipartisan. The rationales of improved human health and economic growth should prove as attractive to a Bush administration as they did to the Clinton administration. The big losers will be applied technology programs, but core support for the National Science Foundation should continue to grow.

Natural hazards: With the establishment of the bipartisan Congressional Natural Hazards Caucus last year in the Senate and a wind hazards caucus in the House, this long-neglected issue area should get greater attention in the coming year. In a deeply divided Congress, issues that have traditionally been non-partisan may have an advantage.

Regardless of which party is in control, scientists have the same obligation to inform the process. The decisions that are made on these issues and many others can benefit from the input of individual geoscientists who get in touch with their representative and senators. The upcoming Science-Engineering-Technology Congressional Visits Day on May 1-2 will be one such opportunity, but there are many others, and some of the best opportunities are right at home.

Applegate is director of the American Geological Institute’s Government Affairs Program and is editor of Geotimes. E-mail:

For more on these issues, visit the AGI Government Affairs Program website at

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