House votes to slash climate research, block new red snapper fishing plan

By Emily Yehle | 06/04/2015 07:36 AM EDT

The House passed a spending bill yesterday that would make cuts to climate research at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as prevent the agency from enforcing a short recreational season for red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico.

The House passed a spending bill yesterday that would make cuts to climate research at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as prevent the agency from enforcing a short recreational season for red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico.

The $51.4 billion spending bill would fund the fiscal 2016 budgets for the Department of Commerce, the Department of Justice, NASA, the National Science Foundation and related agencies. NOAA — which is housed within Commerce — would get about $5.2 billion, a cut of more than $270 million to its current budget (Greenwire, May 19).

The House passed the bill 242-183, on a largely party-line vote. Twelve Democrats — Reps. Brad Ashford of Nebraska; Julia Brownley and Jim Costa of California; Cheri Bustos of Illinois; Henry Cuellar, Gene Green and Filemon Vela of Texas; Gwen Graham of Florida; Ann McLane Kuster of New Hampshire; Sean Maloney of New York; Collin Peterson of Minnestoa; and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — joined most Republicans to pass H.R. 2578.


Lawmakers spent much of Tuesday and yesterday debating and voting on amendments. Several Democrats offered symbolic amendments — which they subsequently withdrew — restoring funds to NOAA’s climate research programs. The spending bill cuts such research by $30 million.

"This Congress has repeatedly affirmed that climate change is real. We may have different ideas about the causes of climate chance and certainly about what we can do to combat it," said Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.). "It makes no sense to slash the very research which will enable us to find effective bipartisan solutions."

The Obama administration also criticized the climate research cut — as well as a $200 million cut to earth science missions in NASA’s budget — in a veto threat of the overall spending bill released Monday.

The statement of administration policy also takes aim at Republicans’ decision not to include $147 million for a new ocean survey vessel and $380 million for a "polar follow-on" satellite that would act as a stopgap to prevent future weather data gaps.

"Not only would the bill heighten the risk of a gap in satellite coverage, but its shortsighted reductions mean that the next generation of polar-orbiting weather satellites would cost taxpayers more," White House officials wrote in the statement.

Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), who heads the subpanel on the House Appropriations Committee that drafted the bill, repeatedly emphasized that the spending bill prioritizes weather forecasting. Climate research took a hit, he said, because it has received "more than adequate funding" in the past.

"We’ve provided, in an era of scarce resource, NOAA with record levels of funding for weather forecasting," Culberson said, referring to the spending caps that Republicans have pledged to uphold. "We’ve made sure they got all the money they need for maritime safety and for supporting and monitoring America’s fisheries."

Red snapper and ‘ocean zoning’

Lawmakers passed more than two dozen amendments to the bill, many of which dealt with DOJ programs, though a few would affect oceans and NOAA programs.

The House voted along party lines to attach an amendment from Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas) prohibiting the use of funds to establishing the National Ocean Policy, an effort the Obama administration began in 2010 with the aim of improving coordination and planning. The House has attached the rider to spending bills in the past, driven by Republican assertions that the policy is akin to "zoning the oceans."

Other successful amendments include reallocating money, such as one from Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) that would take $21 million from NOAA’s administrative funds and move it to fund priorities of a bill now winding its way through Congress. H.R. 1561 would give weather forecasters a greater say on research priorities; it easily passed the House Science, Space and Technology Committee in March (Greenwire, March 25).

Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.) was also successful in pushing through an amendment dealing with the controversy in the Gulf of Mexico over short recreational seasons for red snapper. His amendment — which was adopted by voice vote, with no Democratic objection — would require NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service to follow potentially problematic requirements.

The amendment would require NMFS to set a recreational fishing season that is at least 20 percent as long as the commercial fishing season. But commercial fishermen do not fish in seasons; instead, they have a set annual quota and can catch it anytime during the year.

Recreational fishermen are allowed to catch almost the same amount of red snapper. But they fish in a traditional season, with fishery managers estimating how long it will take the sector to reach the quota. There are also millions of anglers, who collectively catch more fish in a shorter amount of time than the smaller number of boats that make up the commercial sector.

This year, NMFS set the season for recreational anglers at 10 days. On the House floor, Scott compared those 10 days to what he said was a commercial season of 365 days.

Interpreted that way, his amendment would either require NOAA to allow recreational anglers a 73-day season or to only allow commercial fishermen to fish 50 days out of the year.

The amendment would also prohibit NMFS from enforcing a recent rule that gives charter boat captains their own piece of the recreational quota. That sector separation allowed them to have a 44-day red snapper season this year.

Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.), the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee subpanel that drafted the bill, cautiously voiced his support for the amendment.

"In spirit, I support this. I don’t know what the unintended consequences are," Fattah said. "I think you should be able to take your kid out fishing. … If we find some major problem with it, we’ll jump up and down about it then."