Senate Commerce Committee Hits The Ground Running

2017-01-30T13:37:25+00:00 January 30, 2017|
Committee passes unfinished science bills from 114th Congress and approves cabinet nominees(Credit: NMFS/Southwest Fisheries Science Center)

(Click to enlarge) Committee passes unfinished science bills from 114th Congress and approves cabinet nominees (Credit: NMFS/Southwest Fisheries Science Center)

It took only 25 minutes for the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation to advance 16 bills this week, including several of relevance to the ocean science community. Many of the measures were considered during the 114th Congress, and most had bipartisan support.

Several pieces of legislation affecting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) were on the agenda. The Digital Coast Act (S. 110), whose counterpart in the 114th Congress passed the Senate by unanimous consent, authorizes the continuation and improvement of the Digital Coast Project. This online resource, assembled and hosted by NOAA, facilitates high-tech coastal mapping, which helps shoreline communities monitor and predict flooding and storm hazards, prepare for emergency response, strengthen economic development planning, and increase resiliency. The National Sea Grant College Program Amendments Act of 2017 (S. 129) would give federal agencies the authority to direct-hire students who complete John A. Knauss Marine Policy Sea Grant Fellowships and would require equitable placement of these legislative fellows among Republican and Democrat offices. The bill reauthorizes the National Sea Grant College Program Act, authorizing funding of NOAA’s Sea Grant program through Fiscal Year (FY) 2021. NOAA’s directives in these bills weren’t limited to coastal and ocean programs — the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act (S. 141) would coordinate government-wide monitoring and forecasting of space weather (which can disturb electrical power grid and communication networks on Earth) and would have the agency plan for a backup to the aging Solar and Heliospheric Observatory satellite. Finally, the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps Amendments and Hydrographic Services Improvement Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2017 (S. 171) would authorize appropriations from FY 2017 through 2021 for hydrographic surveys, charting and mapping activities, geodetic functions, tide and current measurements, and Arctic programs. An amendment from Senator Dan Sullivan (AK) would direct the Commerce Department to track hydrographic activities and authorize funds for construction of port facilities in Alaska. The bill would also modify recruitment, appointment, and retirement policies within the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps.

The Committee also approved two bipartisan bills (which passed the House this month) supporting programs for women and girls in science at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The Promoting Women in Entrepreneurship Act (H.R. 255) directs NSF to use its programs to recruit and support women in science-related entrepreneurial careers and the Inspiring the Next Space Pioneers, Innovators, Researchers, and Explorers (INSPIRE) Women Act (H.R. 321) authorizes NASA outreach activities to encourage women and girls to study science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to pursue aerospace careers.

The bipartisan Commercial Vessel Incidental Discharge (VIDA) Act (S. 168), which would regulate commercial vessel ballast water and remove discharge restrictions raised controversy. According to the Committee leadership, the bill is designed to align federal and state laws and ease burden on the shipping industry, but environmental groups have pointed out that ballast water is the primary source of invasive species in U.S. waters, and no other industry is exempt from the Clean Water Act. More than half of the Democrats voted against the bill’s passage, including Senators Tammy Baldwin (WI) and Gary Peters (MI), who voiced concern that the legislation would not protect the Great Lakes from invasive species.

The Committee rounded out the morning by unanimously approving two nominees to President Trump’s cabinet: Mr. Wilbur Ross for the Secretary of the Department of Commerce and Ms. Elaine Chao, for the Secretary of the Department of Transportation. Before voting, Ranking Member Bill Nelson (FL) shared a letter from Mr. Ross answering questions he was asked during his confirmation hearing regarding climate research and censorship of government scientists. In the letter, Mr. Ross said he would “put aside for now the question of what is causing these changes,” and with the exception of national security concerns, stated that he saw “no valid reason to keep peer reviewed research from the public.” Although he did not use the words “climate change,” Mr. Ross ensured the Ranking Member that the department will continue to research, monitor, and report climate information to the public.  Between cabinet nominations and ocean science-related measures, the Committee is off to a quick start in what is likely to be a busy year.