Geotimes Logo POLITICAL SCENE March 1998

Congress Looks to a Limited Slate of Issues for 1998

The second session of the 105th Congress began just a few weeks ago, but lawmakers already are saying that they will be able to address only a few issues in the time remaining. As in most years, the lion's share of attention will go to the budget process, especially in the late summer and early fall as House members and a third of their Senate colleagues rush to finish fiscal year 1999 appropriations bills and hit the campaign trail. Funding levels for geoscience-related agencies will be the focus of next month's column; the intention here is to address some of the science, environmental, and energy policy issues that may garner attention this year if they can get on the congressional calendar by late spring.

Science Policy

During the 104th Congress (1995-96), science received relatively little attention. And when it did, that attention was often negative -- most notably, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher's (R-Calif.) junk science hearings and the U.S. Geological Survey's abolition threat. As the 105th Congress was getting organized a year ago, there was considerable discussion of eliminating the House Science Committee altogether. Today, the Science Committee is on firmer ground and hard at work on a policy study commissioned by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and led by Science Committee Vice-Chair Vern Ehlers (R-Mich.), himself a physicist. The Science Committee has held a series of hearings on science education as well as two roundtable discussions, one with leading scientists and the other with young scientists. Additional hearings will take place this spring, with a final product expected in the summer -- the goal being a congressional joint resolution that lays out a coherent long-range policy for science. More information on this study and opportunities to provide feedback can be found at:

In the Senate, Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has revitalized the Subcommittee on Science, Space, and Technology and has spearheaded the formation of a bipartisan Senate Science and Technology Caucus. Meanwhile, Senator Phil Gramm (R-Texas) has been pushing legislation to double federal research funding for civilian science agencies over the next 10 years. Several months ago, Gramm’s proposal was modified and reintroduced as a bipartisan bill (S. 1305), now co-sponsored by Senators Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), and Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.). The scientific community has been told that the legislation must gain momentum this spring if it is to have any chance of passage -- an outcome that would be mostly symbolic but would at least put Congress on record as recognizing the importance of federal investment in research. A companion bill will soon be introduced in the House.

Environmental Policy

Taking on the nation's environmental statutes, many of them long overdue for reauthorization, has been a high priority of the Republican leadership in Congress. But the scope and complexity of overhauling laws such as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (Superfund) or the Clean Water Act may push them into the background as Congress considers a limited agenda. Of the two, Superfund reauthorization has the better shot, with active negotiations underway between congressional leaders and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Global climate change is one environmental issue likely to attract continued interest and attention. Several committees have already held oversight hearings on the United Nations treaty signed in Kyoto this past December by the United States and 150 other countries. The treaty sets binding limits for developed nations on emissions of carbon dioxide and five other "greenhouse gases." Although the next step would normally be ratification of the treaty by the Senate (requiring a two-thirds majority), chances are slim for the Clinton administration to send the treaty to the Senate until after the next climate-change summit, scheduled for November in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The Buenos Aires summit will discuss setting emissions limits for developing countries, a key requirement of a unanimous Senate resolution, which Clinton has publicly pledged to support. In the absence of a ratification debate, Congress may seek to block Clinton’s proposal to earmark $6 billion for tax cuts and research and development to encourage energy efficiency and use of cleaner energy sources.

Energy Policy

As long as gasoline prices are low ... so it goes on Capitol Hill where interest in energy policy is directly proportional to the price at the pump. Those low prices have led the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) to call on both Congress and the White House to halt the sale of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve for deficit reduction, as mandated by last year's appropriations legislation. IPAA and other industry groups have also called for legislation to provide tax credits and additional incentives to preserve marginal wells that are in danger of being capped off if low world oil prices persist. There is no indication, however, that Congress will act on these measures or on other oil-and-gas-incentives legislation. Congress may act, however, on bills to allow royalty-in-kind payments to the Minerals Management Service, another priority of the energy industry.

Electricity deregulation is the energy issue most likely to see substantial action and, if passed, would have the biggest impact. With more than 12 deregulation bills under consideration in various committees and many interests at stake, forging a workable compromise on a comprehensive solution remains a daunting task.

CTBT Prospects Dim

An item that apparently will not be taken up this Congress is the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), despite its prominent inclusion in the State of the Union address. Signed by President Clinton in September 1996, the treaty was expected to be sent to the Senate for ratification early this year. Because the treaty relies on the ability of physicists to verify the readiness of the nation's nuclear stockpile, the American Physical Society endorsed it and has been working on ratification. The treaty also calls on seismologists and other geoscientists to verify the test ban. Efforts to educate senators on these scientific issues were well underway when Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) wrote to the president in January, bluntly informing him that any efforts to press the Senate for CTBT ratification would be "exceedingly unwise" and would only be considered after the Kyoto treaty and NATO expansion are resolved. With the White House distracted by other matters, the administration is not likely to put up a fight, and the treaty must wait until next year. As the election season draws near, “waiting until next year” will, no doubt, become the common catch phrase on Capitol Hill.

David Applegate

AGI Director of Government Affairs

AGI’s Government Affairs Program will be covering all of these issues and helping to coordinate geoscience community responses where appropriate. Please visit our web site at for updated information. Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program

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