Geotimes Logo POLITICAL SCENE March 1997

New Leadership in Washington

The November elections may have returned the same president and the same majority party in Congress, but a bumper crop of retirements in the Senate and the usual second-term shuffle in the Cabinet have brought a new cast of characters into positions of power. In the Senate, nine of the 20 committee chairs are new, including the chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. In the House, both the Science and Agriculture Committees have new chairmen. And more than half of the President's Cabinet are new, although there are some surprising holdovers.

The Senate Shuffle

The drive to balance the budget and the resulting squeeze on discretionary spending will give the appropriations process an even higher profile this year. Science education and biomedical research lost a key supporter with the retirement of Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. His replacement is Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who previously chaired the Government Affairs Committee. Stevens' new position further solidifies the power of Alaska's all-Republican delegation, which now has a near- lock on natural resource issues (Sen. Frank Murkowski chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and Rep. Don Young chairs the House Resources Committee).

On the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Murkowski will contend with a new and far more partisan ranking Democrat as Sen. Dale Bumpers (Ark.) replaces retired Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (La.). Although the committee's traditional bipartisanship started showing signs of wear in the last Congress, the split should become even more apparent given the polarized positions that Bumpers and Murkowski have taken on mining law reform, grazing on federal lands, forest health legislation, and other resource and public lands issues. On the energy front, Murkowski wasted no time re-introducing legislation to facilitate high-level nuclear waste disposal at Yucca Mountain, Nev., and Bumpers quickly introduced legislation to deregulate the electric power industry.

The lone member of the Senate to be defeated was Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. Although Pressler was a strong supporter of the U.S. Geological Survey's EROS Data Center (located in his home state), he focused mainly on telecommunications issues. The new chairman, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), is likely to rely on newly named Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Bill Frist (R- Tenn.), a former heart surgeon, to set a course for science policy.

Frist and Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) have developed a science and technology caucus in the Senate. Like other issue-oriented caucuses on Capitol Hill, one will would promote shared interests and work to educate other members of Congress. A similar coalition focused specifically on university-based research is rumored to be under construction in the House.

New Chairs for Key House Committees

Incumbents fared well in the recent election, and most committee chairs remain the same in the House, where fewer members retired. The Republican majority, however, is down to 10 votes, and the bipartisan rhetoric surrounding the post-election and inaugural periods will be put to the test by moderates in both parties.

After 20 years in the House, Science Committee Chairman Robert Walker (R-Pa.) retired at the end of the last Congress. Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R- Wis.), who chaired the committee's influential space subcommittee, now takes over. Sensenbrenner is a fiscal conservative proud of his record of voting against government spending. He has, however, been a strong proponent of the space station and space-related research. The partisan squabbles that marked the committee's proceedings in the last Congress are likely to continue.

Soil scientists and others with ties to agriculture may at first be puzzled to learn that the new chairman of the House Agriculture Committee was not even a member of the last Congress. Rep. Bob Smith (R-Ore.) retired in 1994, but his replacement, Rep. Wes Cooley, chose not to run for a second term last fall following reports that he had fabricated aspects of his personal history. Smith was enticed to run again only after being promised his full seniority, which put him in line to replace outgoing Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), who successfully claimed one of his state's two open Senate seats.

The only significant change in the House Appropriations Committee is the chairmanship of the Energy and Water Subcommittee, which controls most of the funding for the Department of Energy (DOE). The new chairman, Rep. Joe McDade (R-Pa.), represents a coal-mining district in northeastern Pennsylvania, which may bode well for coal technology programs in DOE's Office of Fossil Energy that have come under fire as "corporate welfare" from critics at both ends of the political spectrum. McDade's indictment for campaign irregularities kept him from claiming chairmanship of the full committee two years ago. After his acquittal earlier this winter, he briefly sought that prize, but popular Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston (R-La.) prevailed.

Familiar faces in the Cabinet

In the President's Cabinet, perhaps the biggest surprise is who is staying. Early in Clinton's first term, many thought that Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt would be among the first to go. But Babbitt recovered from a series of bruising battles over public lands in the West to become the administration's principal environmental spokesman. He now stays on amid rumors that he is awaiting a Supreme Court appointment.

Federico Pena, Clinton's first term Secretary of Transportation, was a surprise choice to replace Hazel O'Leary as Secretary of Energy. Pena has been roundly criticized for his lack of background in energy issues, but if Congress has its way, DOE may not be around long enough for him to learn much on the job. Many new senators and representatives campaigned on a pledge to abolish DOE, and Pena faces an uphill battle convincing Congress of the organization's value.

Efforts to eliminate the department failed in the last Congress, but now even long-time DOE supporter and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) is ready to wield the ax so long as the national labs -- particularly Sandia and Los Alamos -- are left intact.

Administration opposition, however, remains constant. It will be months before we know how the recent leadership shuffles in Washington will affect this issue and others of concern to the geoscience community.

David Applegate
Director of Government Affairs
American Geological Institute

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