Panels approve slew of bills, cuts to climate research

By Kellie Lunney | 07/14/2017 07:08 AM EDT

The House Appropriations Committee spent most of yesterday voting on spending bills.

The House Appropriations Committee spent most of yesterday voting on spending bills. Appropriations Committee/YouTube

The House Appropriations Committee yesterday approved nearly $5 billion for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in fiscal 2018, prioritizing funding for weather programs and fisheries management over climate research.

The legislation, which passed 31-21, would allocate a total of $54 billion to the Commerce and Justice departments, the National Science Foundation and NASA. That’s $2.6 billion below fiscal 2017 levels. The funding for NOAA, housed in Commerce, would amount to a $710 million cut.

Appropriators approved reducing climate research at the agency by 19 percent, which concerned many committee Democrats. The bill would provide $128 million for the research, down from $158 million.

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Ranking member Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) said the cut is "further proof that the Republican majority does not take the science of climate change seriously or have any intent to combat one of the great threats of our time."

The bill provides $973 million for the National Weather Service’s operations, research and facilities — $37 million more than the administration’s request — "to maintain critical capabilities to provide weather forecasts and warnings," the committee report said. The panel also rejected the White House’s proposed reduction to the Tsunami Warning System.

NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service would receive $848 million for fiscal 2018, while the National Ocean Service would receive $462.6 million for operations, research and facilities. The committee rejected the administration’s proposed reduction to NMFS’s national catch share program.

The panel also rejected administration budget proposals to cut or eliminate popular programs, including the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund and the Sea Grant program.

The committee carved out $65 million for the salmon recovery fund and $63 million for the Sea Grant initiative, which supports research at 33 universities nationwide. The White House budget wanted to slash the Sea Grant program, but appropriators decided to give it the same level of funding it received in fiscal 2017.

Appropriators also chose not to follow the administration’s recommendation to gut the National Estuarine Research Reserve System, instead providing funding at the fiscal 2017 level, approximately $23 million.

"The NERRS is an important partnership between NOAA and the coastal States that is crucial for protecting and studying estuarine systems," the committee report on the bill said.

Appropriators "clearly took a more thoughtful approach than the Trump White House to funding this important agency [NOAA] by supporting key coastal and ocean programs like Sea Grant, [the Office of Ocean Exploration and Research], and National Estuarine Research Reserves," said Addie Haughey, associate director of government relations at the Ocean Conservancy.

"Unfortunately, the House [committee spending bill] retains some of the more egregious cuts from the Trump budget," Haughey added, citing the 50 percent cut to the coastal management grants program, which "empower coastal states to protect the invaluable ocean resources in their backyards, have a say in how federal agencies manage the ocean right of their shores, and keep communities safe from ocean and weather hazards."

The panel would fund the Coastal Zone Management Program at $45 million in fiscal 2018, down from $70 million in fiscal 2017. The bill does not fund Regional Coastal Resilience Grants, which received $15 million in fiscal 2017.

Together the two programs typically have constituted the coastal management grants budget line in spending legislation. The administration recommended zeroing out both programs.

House appropriators also approved "full funding to continue the Joint Polar Satellite System weather satellite program and the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite program to help maintain and improve weather forecasting to warn communities about potentially devastating natural disasters," a committee summary said.

They included $775.8 million for JPSS in fiscal 2018, a series of satellites that will circle the Earth from pole to pole, gathering atmospheric, weather and climate data. The GOES-R Series program would receive roughly $518.5 million.

Amendments

Amendments approved during yesterday’s marathon markup include:

  • Language from Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) to prohibit any funds in the bill from being used to implement or enforce the "designation of any area of the Chesapeake Bay watershed as critical habitat for the Atlantic sturgeon." It passed by voice vote.
  • An amendment by Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) to provide $20 million in assistance to communities affected by fishery disasters or failures, funding that the administration did not request. Kilmer praised the bipartisan effort to find money for fishery disasters and said he hoped the committee could work together to address more concerns. "Literally thousands of jobs in my district are related to fishing," he said.

An unsuccessful amendment offered by Democratic Reps. José Serrano of New York and Henry Cuellar of Texas to prohibit the federal government from seizing private property to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border generated some controversy during the markup.

Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), chairman of the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, said the measure didn’t belong in the CJS bill. The amendment, similar to others Democrats have floated in recent days to different bills, failed in a 21-31 vote.

Another amendment that failed would have restored $30 million for climate research at NOAA. "I appreciate Chairman Culberson’s effort to retrench some of the funding, but it doesn’t go far enough," said sponsor Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.).

Culberson said he would "do all I can to continue to support NOAA" but that "without a spending offset" to pay for the amendment, "it would prevent our bill from reaching the floor."

Serrano also unsuccessfully tried to add language that would have reversed cuts to coastal management grants as part of a larger amendment to add $1.7 billion to the CJS bill. It failed in a 22-30 roll call vote.

Culberson reiterated during the markup that the House will have to come up with a broad, far-reaching budget deal if appropriators hope to boost funding for NOAA programs and the National Science Foundation.

Science

The NSF would be cut by $133 million, to $7.3 billion, under the bill. Still, the number is higher than President Trump’s budget request, which would have funded NSF at $6.7 billion.

"These funds will foster innovation and U.S. economic competitiveness, including funding for research on advanced manufacturing, physics, mathematics, cybersecurity, neuroscience, and [science, technology, engineering and math] education," the committee summary said.

The Trump plan prompted outrage from House Democrats, who noted it was the first time in 60 years a president submitted an NSF budget with a spending request lower than the previous fiscal year’s.

The agency funds a variety of climate, energy and polar research, including the Ocean Observatories Initiative, a network of sea sensors intended to advance learning on issues like ocean acidification.

The committee allocated $6 billion for research and related activities at NSF. Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) introduced a failed amendment that would have boosted funding for the agency by $604.2 million.

Justice

Also in the bill is a provision that would bar the Justice Department from entering into settlement agreements that require donations to third parties. The language appears to track a memo issued by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in June.

Environmentalists say that the rider would block money from going toward environmental projects. It would have barred, for example, a stipulation in the government’s settlement with Volkswagen AG over the recent diesel emissions cheating scandal that required the German automaker to fund electric vehicle infrastructure (Greenwire, June 7).

State

Separately, the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee approved by voice vote its fiscal 2018 proposal. Members offered no amendments and debate was limited, as is generally the case at the subcommittee level.

The bill includes provisions to prevent money from going to the U.N. Green Climate Fund and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (E&E News PM, July 12).

Lowey decried the absence of funds for climate action. She and other Democratic members said they would offer amendments when the bill reaches full committee as soon as next week.

The legislation would reduce funding for the State Department and foreign operations by $10 billion, down from about $57.4 billion in fiscal 2017. Still, the cuts are not as deep as those in Trump’s proposal, which included roughly $37 billion for State.

Other agencies

The Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Labor Department yesterday approved legislation that would cut the Mine Safety and Health Administration by $14 million, pointing to "lower levels of mining across the country and especially in coal production."

The full committee later approved legislation to fund financial services regulators and other government entities, including the Office of Management and Budget.

The legislation includes a rider to roll back Obama-era limits on funding for overseas power plans. Another rider would prevent OMB from reviewing Army Corps of Engineers water resource projects.

Reporters Arianna Skibell, Christa Marshall and Amanda Reilly contributed.

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