Geotimes Logo POLITICAL SCENE January 1996

USGS Abolition Threat Gets Second Wind

Fully one year ago, Republicans assumed the role of majority party in the House of Representatives for the first time in over forty years. They arrived eager to carry out the promises made in their campaign banner: the "Contract with America". Because those promises included a balanced budget and large tax cuts, the "Contract" was accompanied by suggested budget offsets to pay for these provisions. The fourth-largest offset was to abolish the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Another offset was the abolition of the U.S. Bureau of Mines (USBM). The threat to these agencies created significant concern within the geoscience community and greatly increased the political awareness of many gescientists.

As the appropriations process wore on through the spring and summer, it became clear that the USGS would not be abolished but could expect a slight decrease from the previous year's appropriations budget for its core responsibilities. The USBM did not fare so well, and neither did the National Biological Service (NBS), another "Contract" target in the Department of the Interior (DOI). Despite Senate efforts to retain them, both agencies were eliminated and their functions transferred to other agencies, most notably the USGS, which received the mineral information branch of USBM and the bulk of NBS. Thus, the USGS not only survived but received a large budget increase to fund the newly acquired functions. The USGS benefited from Administration support, its own education effort, and the efforts of AGI, the professional societies, and countless individuals who expressed their support for the Survey to Congress.

Just when a collective sigh of relief appeared to be in order, however, a new threat appeared in a separate and lesser known track of the budget process known as budget reconciliation. In August, committees in both the House and Senate considered measures that would hand over most of the Survey's primary functions to the private sector. The trade group for photogrammetry and surveying had been pushing similar legislation for years in an effort to increase contracting of mapping and surveying activities but previously had been unsuccessful. Their effort received a major boost from the new majority because it fit well with their philosophy of limiting government only to those functions that could not be performed by the private sector.

The budget reconciliation process, like the appropriations process, carries out instructions set down in the joint budget resolution, passed in April. While the appropriators toil away at discretionary spending for the coming fiscal year, the authorizing committees (committees other than Appropriations and Budget that have jurisdiction over the bulk of legislation) must deliver legislation that will save enough money to reach the longer-term targets in the budget resolution, in this case a balanced budget in seven years.

The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, chaired by Senator Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska), was required to pass legislation that would save $4 billion over seven years. The budget resolution included suggestions for meeting this target: privatizing the U.S. (uranium) Enrichment Corporation and the federal helium program within USBM, selling some of the Department of Energy's regional power marketing administrations (which distribute power from federal hydroelectric projects), increasing National Park Service entrance and concessions fees, and opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) on Alaska's North Slope to lease sales for oil drilling.

To this list, Murkowski added a number of additional provisions including one that read simply: "By not later than October 1, 1996, the Secretary of the Interior shall contract with private firms for the provision of all surveying and mapping activities of the Department of the Interior." Lacking any specific definition of surveying and mapping activities, this provision could be applied to virtually all of the functions of the USGS as well as several other Interior agencies. In addition, the provision would undermine efforts underway to reauthorize the National Geologic Mapping Act. Although broad in its implications, the provision was the result of specific grievances, particularly in Alaska, that private firms were being forced to compete with Interior agencies for aerial surveying and other contracts. Private firms were also eager to obtain a greater share of USGS map production, 25% of which is already contracted out.

The House Resources Committee, chaired by Representative Don Young (R-Alaska), considered a similar but more detailed surveying and mapping provision. The House language called for the creation of a panel to inventory all mapping and surveying activities done by Interior with the purpose being to move as many as possible out to private-sector contractors. In addition to Interior officials, the panel would include representatives from the Small Business Administration and the industry trade association that was promoting this bill!

Administration reaction to both the House and Senate versions was very strong. In a letter to Murkowski, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt characterized the Senate provision as "extreme and impractical" with "far-reaching adverse effects" on Interior. He argued that it would turn over "the entire body of work of the U.S. Geological Survey" to the private sector. USGS Director Gordon Eaton released a statement calling the provisions an "eleventh-hour summary execution of the USGS without benefit of debate and discussion in public hearings." Despite this opposition, the House included the mapping provision in its final version of the reconciliation bill.

Opposition to the provision was more successful in the Senate, because it ran afoul of a procedural rule requiring that all reconciliation bill provisions must have saving money as their primary purpose. Without demonstrable savings, as determined (or "scored") by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the provision can be eliminated. A three-fifths majority is required to waive this requirement, known as the Byrd Rule after Senator Robert C. Byrd (D-WV), the master of parliamentary procedure who crafted it. The reconciliation bill can only be debated for a fixed amount of time, and the Byrd Rule is intended to keep it clean of extraneous provisions that could otherwise be passed without the threat of a filibuster.

When the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources met to vote on their parrt of the reconciliation bill, CBO was running behind and had not yet provided a score for the mapping provision. Without a CBO score and facing strong opposition from ranking minority member Senator J. Bennett Johnston (D-Louisiana), the Energy Committee dropped the mapping provision from the final package that it passed.

In October, the House and Senate held a conference to resolve the differences between their versions of the reconciliation legislation, now renamed the Seven-Year Balanced Budget Reconciliation Act of 1995. By this time, CBO had determined that the House mapping provision contained no anticipated savings and thus was vulnerable to the Byrd rule. Faced with continued opposition in the Senate, the House agreed to drop the provision after reaching a compromise that language be inserted in the report accompanying the bill, stating Congress's intent to act on this issue in the near future. Although report language is non-binding and intended to be explanatory, the Appropriations Committee routinely uses it as a means to control where and how money is spent -- woe be to the agency that crosses these instructions when they come before Congress asking for next year's funding!

Both Murkowski and particularly Young retain their strong interest in this issue and plan to introduce the surveying and mapping provision as a stand-alone bill. There is a very real danger that Congress will try to append a similar contracting provision to the National Geologic Mapping Act reauthorization bill, perhaps dealing a fatal blow to the bipartisan appeal of that legislation. This issue will remain an important one even as the USGS struggles to redefine itself in the face of added responsibilities given to it in the appropriations process.

David Applegate
Director of Government Affairs
American Geological Institute

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