Geotimes Logo POLITICAL SCENE December 1996

Last Impressions of the 104th Congress

In areas that affect geoscientists (and many others), the 104th Congress left a great deal of unfinished business. Its legacy will ultimately depend on whether the 105th Congress, which convenes next month, carries through on its predecessor's agenda. President Clinton's re-election and the lack of a filibuster-proof Republican majority in the Senate ensure that legislative progress will be gained only through compromise -- as was true for the past two years.

This pattern of success through compromise was clearly demonstrated in the area of environmental legislation. The passage of major environmental bills such as pesticide reform and reauthorization of the Safe Drinking Water Act were achieved through broad bipartisan cooperation (see Political Scene, Geotimes, September 1996). In contrast, high-profile attempts to reform Superfund, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act garnered much attention but made little progress due to a lack of consensus.

The 104th Congress began inauspiciously in 1995 with Republicans disproportionately targeting geoscience agencies in the proposed budget cuts that accompanied their "Contract with America." Abolition of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) was the fourth largest cut proposed. Two years later, two "Contract" targets in the Department of the Interior -- the National Biological Service and the U.S. Bureau of Mines -- are gone, but many of their functions remain. Overall funding for the geosciences has not been substantially altered.

What has changed is that geoscientists as a group are much more aware that they must justify their work not only to their peers but to the public and its elected representatives. Drastic funding cuts were never enacted, yet the message hit home that Congress did not see the value of geoscientific research. The campaign to save the USGS tried to change that view, and many in Congress became better informed. But such efforts cannot be viewed as a one-time exercise -- they must become routine if new appropriations committee members and freshman representatives are to stay the budget ax in future years.

Appropriations ceasefire

Although "science policy" has a lofty ring, this year (as in other recent years) the most important congressional actions for geoscientists working in academia and federal agencies were all about money. The government shutdowns and continuing resolutions that marked the fiscal year 1996 budget process kept a number of geoscience-related agencies waiting for full-year funding until April, midway through the fiscal year. In contrast, the fiscal year 1997 process went much more smoothly with both sides seeking compromises to avoid another unpopular shutdown in the midst of an election contest. Seven of the 13 appropriations bills passed under their own steam, and the remaining six were bundled together in an omnibus package that Congress passed and the President signed on the evening of Sept. 30, hours before the new fiscal year began.

Most geoscience-related agencies and programs received small increases over fiscal year 1996, although these were less than the President requested. Early House versions of appropriations bills contained flat funding or cuts, but additional funds made their way into the final legislation after prolonged negotiations with the White House. The U.S. Geological Survey was typical in this respect. The House approved $730 million, the same as the agency received in fiscal year 1996. The final bill provided a $9-million increase, an amount still $7 million less than the President had requested. Both totals included money for the newly established Biological Resources Division (the functions absorbed from the National Biological Service) as well as the minerals information function from the defunct U.S. Bureau of Mines.

The research and related activities account in the National Science Foundation's budget received $2.4 billion, a boost of $118 million but still $40 million shy of the President's request. NASA's Mission to Planet Earth program escaped a House-imposed $200-million cut below the President's request of $1.4 billion, but up to $100 million in nonspecified cuts to NASA could still come out of the program. Appropriations for the Department of Energy's (DOE) Fossil Energy R&D program continued their downward trend, although Congress restored some of the funds cut by the President in his budget request. DOE's Basic Energy Sciences programs were funded at $650 million, only $4 million short of the President's request. (Additional information on funding levels can be obtained at Government Affairs Home Page.)

Professional concerns

Federal spending levels also have a major impact on geoscientists in the private sector, but their occupations make a range of other issues important to them as well. For example, the environmental legislation mentioned previously affects geoscientists in the environmental, mining, and petroleum sectors.

Attempts to revise the Mining Law of 1872 failed again as they have in many recent Congresses. Divisions between eastern and western lawmakers cut across party lines and cut away opportunities for compromise.

For geoscientists in the oil and gas sector, Congress and the Clinton administration were able to reach agreements and enact bills that lifted the ban on exports of Alaskan oil, provided royalty relief in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, streamlined the collection of royalties for oil and gas leases on public lands, and amended the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. Legislation to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska for drilling failed. President Clinton vetoed the fiscal year 1996 omnibus budget package in part because it contained this provision.

Progress on nuclear waste

The Department of Energy's project to establish a high-level nuclear waste disposal site at Yucca Mountain, Nev., has been called the biggest geologic public works project in history. Legislation that would speed up the site suitability process and establish a temporary storage facility at the Nevada Test Site passed the Senate 63-36. The bill, however, was not brought up for a vote in the House for lack of a veto-proof majority.

Separate legislation enacted in September will speed up the opening of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the nation's repository for long-lived transuranic wastes. The bill simplifies the regulatory framework and declares that the facility should open by the end of 1997.

Geologic Mapping Act comes close

Parliamentary maneuvers in the Senate were deployed by both parties with particular vigor in the second session of the 104th Congress, especially when it came to public lands bills. Caught in the crossfire were a number of small, noncontroversial bills that in other circumstances would have passed with unanimous approval and no debate.

One such bill was the reauthorization of the National Geologic Mapping Act of 1992. After weathering an early attempt to append language that would privatize mapping functions in the Interior Department, the bill passed the House in late July, but the Senate never voted on it. Public lands bills and the nuclear waste bill caused several holds, or threats to filibuster, that kept the geologic mapping bill from slipping through. It appeared to have a good chance in the final hours of the session after all the controversial bills had been taken care of, but Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) called it a night (and a Congress) before the mapping bill came up. Hopes run high for early passage in the next Congress.

As with most Congresses, the 104th failed to live up to the expectations of either its strongest supporters or most adamant detractors. The new 105th Congress must now take up the funding decisions and the environmental, public lands, resources, and science policy issues left hanging by its predecessor and, one can only hope, find new compromise solutions amidst the hailstorms of partisan rhetoric that are unlikely to abate.

David Applegate
Director of Government Affairs
American Geological Institute

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