With appropriation legislation moving smoothly through Congress in May and June, there was early optimism some bills may be presented to the President before the August recess. However, progress on appropriations slowed considerably as the summer progressed with the House having passed seven spending measures and the Senate yet to consider any of the 12 annual spending bills. Therefore, it appears that when Congress returns from August recess, it will pass a continuing resolution to fund the government until after the November elections. Meanwhile, appropriations staff will likely be working behind the scenes to work out the differences between the House and Senate bills that have been introduced to date. Such differences in funding include proposals by the Senate to spend more funding, including an increase of $74 million for naval basic research; $82 million more for NASA Earth Science; $50 million more for NOAA ocean and atmospheric research; and $41 million more for NOAA climate research. The House science funding bill also proposes to spend $140 million more than the Senate and $171 million more than the President requested for research at the NSF. There are also major differences in funding allocations for the EPA, which the House proposes to fund at $7.5 billion, $700 million below the Senate allocation of $8.2 billion. Should the House and Senate fail to bridge the gap between their spending priorities, then a year-long continuing resolution funding agencies at current levels is possible.
Despite the lack of progress on the appropriations bills, several key pieces of science-related authorizing legislation were acted upon in July. The House passed the STEM Education Act of 2014 (H.R. 5031), which authorizes the NSF to continue awarding grants that support research advancing informal STEM education and the development of out-of-school STEM learning initiatives. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) unveiled the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act (S. 2757). The legislation would reauthorize the NSF and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) through FY 2019, with both agencies receiving an average annual funding increase of 6.7 percent. The House counterpart to this bill (the FIRST Act (H.R. 4186)) would only increase funding at 4.9 percent annually and would cut funding for social, behavioral, and economic sciences, as well as the geosciences. Additionally, the House version includes changes to the NSF peer review process, a provision not included in the Senate version. Ocean Leadership submitted a letter to the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology regarding the FIRST Act expressing our concerns with the funding levels and peer review provisions. Ocean Leadership has also signed on to a joint comment letter in support of the COMPETES Act.
Ocean Leadership also joined with other concerned science organizations and institutions to submit comment letters to both the House leadership and Senate Environment of Public Works Committee on the Secret Science Reform Act (H.R. 4012). This bill seeks to prohibit EPA from using science that is not transparent or reproducible when proposing, finalizing, or disseminating regulations or assessments, thus potentially limiting EPA’s ability to use the best science in making regulatory decisions, and setting a bad precedent for federally supported science.
Finally, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee approved the National Sea Grant College Program Amendments Act of 2014 (S. 2030) and Vessel Incidental Discharge Act (S.2094). The National Sea Grant College Program is reauthorized under S. 2030, with authorized funding increasing from $72 million in FY 2015 to $92 million in FY 2020. Among key provisions in the legislation, the Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship Program would be made a required activity and would require bipartisan distribution of the legislative fellows. The Vessel Incidental Discharge Act also passed in the Committee, but not without disapproval by some Committee members. Senator Barbara Boxer [D-CA] voted against the bill, noting the bill’s potential to weaken the ability of states to impose stricter regulations on ballast water to control invasive species. The Senator also voiced concerns that the bill was not sent to the Environment and Public Works Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Clean Water Act.
The Senate and House held multiple important hearings and briefings in July, on topics including the Arctic, climate change, federally funded R&D investments, marine mammal strandings, and FEMA flood mapping. A Senate hearing was also held to update Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee members on the Gulf oil spill RESTORE Act. With the RESTORE Act having been passed two years ago, Committee members were frustrated with the slow progress of the federal rules and regulations necessary to distribute funds for restoration efforts. This month, the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, responsible for managing 30 percent of the RESTORE Act Trust Funds, approved the process to submit and evaluate proposals. In order to provide states funds for planning purposes, the Council plans to release an interim Council regulation later this summer. The Council has already released its draft Comprehensive Plan. However, Committee members are concerned the statutory language in the Plan is not in accordance with that of the RESTORE Act. Committee members also expressed frustration in the delay of the Treasury Department rule on how funds in the Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund can be invested and utilized. The rule was scheduled to be released in January and funds cannot be allocated to state and local governments without a final rule being published.
In the last week of July, Ocean Leadership hosted a workshop to examine underwater noise from ships with key stakeholders, including industry, the Navy, and marine scientists. Discussions built on the International Maritime Organization Guidelines on Ocean Noise and recommendations to bridge the gap in research on this issue will be released in a report in the coming months.