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Political Scene

For Starters: Lame Duck
Katie Donnelly

My year in Congress began as the congressional year was winding down. Contrary to the label, however, the 2004 lame duck session of the 108th Congress was anything but lame. Packed with enormously important legislation, the session gave me the chance to witness the passage of the budget from last year, and to observe serious debate about the country’s intelligence system.

I have settled into my new home for the next year in Rep. Edward J. Markey’s (D-Mass.) office, where I will work on a specific set of issues that include nuclear nonproliferation, security, science research and development, and human rights. Work on those issues, however, went on hold, first for the traditional lame duck session following the November elections, and then as a stalemate over the intelligence reform bill brought both houses of Congress back for a second lame duck session after Thanksgiving.

Like a fish out of water, I was thrown into the complex process of appropriations. For the most part, my role was confined to that of an observer or advocate in the final stages of the appropriations bill. Rep. Markey does not sit on the appropriations committee, so we had to rely on those members who do for the inside track. From that vantage point, the appropriations process to me seemed chaotic.

Government programs and agencies are funded through 13 separate appropriations bills. This year, only four of the 13 appropriations bills passed through both houses of Congress before the November elections, leaving most government agencies without a budget for the upcoming year. When this happens, as it has many times before, the remaining appropriations bills are bundled together into a single bill called an omnibus. This cuts through some of the difficulty in passing a single appropriations bill through both houses of Congress, let alone multiple appropriations bills.

The 2005 Omnibus Appropriations Act is a whopping 3,000-plus pages long and bundles together nine appropriations bills. It provides the covered government programs and agencies with $388 billion. In effect, this enormous bill can be thought of as one giant spreadsheet, giving greater anonymity to each individual program: one program in 3,000 pages of programs.

The current climate of soaring budget deficits has Congress determined to exercise some control on spending. Unfortunately, this means that program cuts are inevitable. The bottom line is particularly easy to see and achieve with an omnibus appropriations bill. But finding out which agencies received funding cuts is not easy, as the structure of the bill can leave individual programs lost in such a massive piece of legislation. Together, the pressure to cap spending and the large number of programs considered in this omnibus obscured the merits of individual programs.

Science and technology research and development did not escape the chopping block. The National Science Foundation received a 1.9 percent cut from last year — the first cut to the agency in 13 years (Geotimes Web Extra, Dec. 29, 2004). The Environmental Protection Agency also received significant cuts, down 2.8 percent, and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) was cut 0.3 percent from last year. Other programs received boosts, with NASA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture receiving 4.5 percent and 7.8 percent increases, respectively. In addition, research and development related to defense and security saw large increases in spending through agencies such as the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security.

The other big issue that awaited Congress in the lame duck session was the reform of the national intelligence system. For both this bill and the omnibus appropriations bill, “conferencing” the different House and Senate versions so that they have identical language highlighted the power of the members whose job it was to work out the differences between the bills. Without agreement during conferencing, the bills would stall.

That pressure to compromise was ultimately useful to my efforts to remove from the House version of the intelligence reform bill provisions regarding human rights that violated international treaties such as the U.N. Convention Against Torture. Working with human rights groups, we were unsuccessful prior to conferencing. But then Markey crafted a letter that was co-signed by 60 House members and asked conference members to remove the human rights provisions. With the Senate version not including these human rights provisions and a sizable number of House members opposing them, the provisions were dropped from the final bill. In the end, it was a huge effort to be sure something did not happen. The conference bill eventually passed and became law largely intact.

Congress knew the potential public outcry and repercussions of not approving the national intelligence reform were too great. Whatever conference members hammered out, both houses of Congress would be pressured to pass, giving conference members enormous control over what eventually would become law.

The third issue that flared up during the lame duck session was Iran and its uncertain intent and capability to make nuclear weapons. Although the United States is not directly involved in negotiations with Iran, with European countries taking the lead, Congress still needs to stay informed about the issue and act when appropriate. What role Congress can play in defusing the Iran situation remains unclear.

In the coming year, my office will watch very closely what emerges from the Europe-Iran talks. Also this year, the nuclear nonproliferation treaty is up for renewal, which will present an opportunity for the global community to examine ways to strengthen its commitment to nonproliferation.

Although the start of my fellowship was out of synch with the congressional year, I have already gotten a good taste for the political process at work. The main course, so to speak, will begin in February, when the new Congress will to try to deliver on campaign promises. The president will submit his budget for fiscal year 2006 on Feb. 7, and that process will begin again. Hopefully, I will be a little ahead of the curve this time.

Donnelly, an igneous petrologist, is the 2004-2005 American Geological Institute Congressional Fellow, one of about 30 fellows sponsored by science and engineering societies.

"Science on a budget," Geotimes Web Extra, Dec. 29, 2004

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