Political Scene

New Congress Faces Same Issues
David Applegate

The 108th Congress gets underway on Jan. 7. Every two years, a newly elected Congress begins with a clean slate, the bills introduced but not enacted into law during the previous biennium having expired. The issues, however, have not expired, and the 107th Congress left a great deal of unfinished business.

The 11 fiscal year 2003 appropriations bills remain incomplete three months into the fiscal year. Only the two bills that fund the military were signed into law. The rest of the federal government has been operating under continuing resolutions that provide funding at fiscal year 2002 levels. Although both the House and Senate passed versions of comprehensive energy legislation, the two houses were unable to reach agreement.

Republicans control both houses of Congress and the presidency as they did two years ago until the switch of Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) threw control of the Senate to the Democrats. Regaining the majority in the Senate means that Republicans will control the agenda, but a razor-thin margin assures deadlock in the absence of a bipartisan compromise.

Here’s a look at what we might expect from the 108th Congress on several issues of interest to the geoscience community. Bear in mind Yogi Berra’s observation that prediction is difficult, “especially about the future.”

Appropriations. The new Congress will attempt to make short work of the fiscal year 2003 appropriations bills, whether as a single omnibus package (the House preference) or as individual bills (the Senate preference). The stated goal is completion by the president’s State of the Union address in late January. Both houses have agreed to keep the overall funding level to the president’s goal of $750 billion. For the Senate, that means $15 billion needs to be cut from the bills approved by the Appropriations Committee last summer and fall.

As staff work through the holidays to identify reductions, geoscience programs could experience cuts across the board. Although details of the president’s fiscal year 2004 request will not be released until early February, it is already apparent that there will be no spending surge. Any increases will be concentrated on defense and homeland security.

Energy. Senate Republican leaders have stated that energy will be a top issue in the new Congress with the Republican-controlled Senate expected to craft a bill much closer to last year’s House-passed energy bill (H.R. 4). At the end of the 107th Congress, House-Senate negotiations on H.R. 4 had produced compromise on hundreds of pages of bill language, but the two sides remained far apart on electricity deregulation, climate-related provisions, ethanol liability, drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), and tax incentives to encourage domestic energy production and energy efficiency.

ANWR. In the final House-Senate negotiations on an energy bill before the election, it appeared that ANWR was off the table — it had been included in the House bill but not the Senate bill after it was clear that drilling supporters did not have the 60 votes needed to overcome a promised filibuster.

One option is to take ANWR out of the energy bill and instead move it as part of a budget process known as reconciliation, which cannot be filibustered. Just as the annual appropriations bills address the discretionary spending levels for the federal government, budget reconciliation bills make changes on non-discretionary spending and revenue items such as Social Security benefits and taxes. After Republicans took over Congress in the 1994 election, they included ANWR (which is fair game because it would bring in tax revenue) in a budget reconciliation bill the following year that was ultimately vetoed by then-President Clinton.

Clearly, President Bush would not veto an ANWR provision this time, but getting ANWR through the Senate is less certain. In a test vote this past year, ANWR supporters garnered only 46 votes in the Senate with 8 Republicans voting against drilling. A preliminary head count by Environment and Energy Daily of newly elected senators suggests that supporters are still one vote short of the 50 needed (Vice President Dick Cheney would break a tie).

Climate Change. In the last Congress, Senate Democrats sought to include provisions addressing climate change as part of the energy bill, but those provisions are not likely to reappear in the new Congress. A similar fate is expected for Clean Air Act reform legislation (S. 556) pushed in the last Congress by Sen. Jeffords, who chaired the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. S. 556 sought to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant along with nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and mercury. The president’s Clear Skies Initiative focused only on the latter three, and Jeffords’ replacement as chairman, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), is a strong opponent of carbon dioxide regulation. On the research front, the administration plans to unveil a strategic plan for its new Climate Change Science Program in April 2003.

Natural Hazards. The National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Act was last re-authorized in 2000, and new legislation is needed to direct spending in fiscal year 2004 and beyond. Although the 2000 bill called for $170 million to develop the Advanced National Seismic System (Geotimes, October 2002), only a fraction of that has been appropriated. The House Science Committee is expected to take up this legislation early in the new Congress with an eye toward increasing the impact of this four-agency program.

Homeland Security. One piece of business that the 107th Congress did finish in a special post-election session was enacting legislation that created the new Department of Homeland Security. The department will officially take shape on Jan. 26. Many of the details remain to be worked out regarding oversight responsibility for the new department. The first half of the 108th will see considerable jockeying for position among the committees and their chairmen.

Applegate is the American Geological Institute’s Director of Government Affairs and Editor of Geotimes. E-mail: Background on these issues is available on AGI's Government Affairs Web Site.

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