American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program SPECIAL UPDATE

Congress Adjourns, Leaves Trail of Bills In Its Wake


This update was originally sent out as an e-mail message to AGI's member societies

IN A NUTSHELL: The first session of the 105th Congress ended yesterday with the passage of a flurry of legislation, including the last remaining appropriations bills for fiscal year 1998. Congress also passed a four-day-old bill to exempt the National Research Council from the Federal Advisory Committee Act. In recent weeks, bills have been introduced to protect the producers of databases from "unfair use" and to create a National Institute for the Environment within NSF. In addition, the House passed several pieces of legislation on nuclear waste and land sovereignty issues.


Yesterday, Congress went home for the holidays, ending the first session of the 105th Congress. The second session will begin on January 26th when the House returns with the Senate expected back a day later. Although much of the attention over the past several months has been focused on the appropriations process, action has also occurred on a number of issues outside that process. After a brief wrap-up on appropriations, this update focuses on several issues relating to environmental, resource, and science policy. These synopses are taken from longer updates that appear on the AGI web site ( under "Government Affairs."

Appropriations Process Over...Almost!
Working under a fifth continuing resolution, Congress was able to complete work on the last of the thirteen fiscal year 1998 appropriations bills on November 13. Although President Clinton is expected to sign all the bills, individual provisions not included in his budget request could still fall victim to a line-item veto.

After passing the Senate on November 9, the Commerce, State, and Judiciary conference bill, which funds NOAA, was finally passed by the House on November 13 and now awaits the President's signature. The House passed the conference version of the Labor/HHS/Education bill, which includes increased funding for the Eisenhower Professional Development Program, on November 7 and the Senate followed by passing it the next day. President Clinton quickly signed it into law on November 12. Earlier today, Clinton signed the Interior bill but has yet to act on the Agriculture bill.

New Law Exempts Academy From Strict Public Disclosure Requirements
Congress appears to have spared the National Research Council from having to comply with a November 3 Supreme Court ruling that held its committees subject to the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA). Without comment, the Justices let stand a lower court ruling that Research Council committee meetings and deliberations must be open to the public. FACA also assigns government officials certain roles in committee operations. The case arose when animal rights activists sued for access to a committee preparing a federally funded study on the care of laboratory animals.

The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Science and its sister organizations the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine (all referred to collectively as "the Academy"), which are congressionally chartered but not part of the federal government. The Academy argued that FACA would give the government "an intolerable degree of control over the Academy's committees," undermine the credibility of its reports, and slow response time. Executive Director William Colglazier told the New York Times that the ruling "is certainly a crisis for the Academy, probably the most serious we have ever faced."

In an unusually quick process, Rep. Steve Horn (R-CA) introduced H.R. 2977, which amends FACA to exclude the National Academy of Science and the National Academy of Public Administration, on November 9. The bill passed the House the following day and the Senate on November 13. The bill has been presented to the President, who has indicated that he will sign it. In a letter to Congress, Franklin Raines, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, stated that the Administration believes that FACA was not intended to include the Academy.

Bill Introduced to Create Environment Institute within NSF
On November 7, Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-HI) and Rep. Jim Saxton (R-NJ), along with 33 additional cosponsors, introduced H.R. 2914, the Sound Science for the Environment Act. The bill authorizes and directs the National Science Foundation to establish a National Institute for the Environment (NIE). According to the bill, funding for NIE would come from congressional appropriations, other federal agencies, states, and private institutions. No money would be taken from existing NSF programs to fund NIE.

The semi-autonomous NIE would assess the current state of knowledge on environmental issues; award competitively peer-reviewed grants for research; establish a National Library for the Environment with "easy to use, electronic, state-of-the art system for scientists, decision makers and the public;" and sponsor education and training programs to improve scientific literacy. The bill has been referred to the House Science Committee to be taken up after Congress returns in January.

Database Protection Bill Introduced
On October 9th, Rep. Howard Coble (R-NC) introduced H.R. 2652, the Collections of Information Antipiracy Act, a bill "to prevent the misappropriation of collections of information." The bill would create new intellectual property protections for databases, particularly electronic ones, that are not otherwise covered by existing copyright law. Similar legislation introduced in the last Congress (H.R. 3531) produced a storm of criticism from the scientific community, and it remains to be seen whether the new bill fully addresses their concerns. Coble chairs the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts and Intellectual Property, which held a hearing on this legislation on October 23rd.

When he introduced the bill, Coble stated that in crafting the new bill, he was "particularly mindful of the concerns of the library, scientific, research, and educational communities" in drafting the bill. He went on to say that the concerns raised over H.R. 3531 had been alleviated in the new bill "by specifically allowing access and use for those purposes, while still providing necessary protection to ensure continued investment and production of collections of information." Unlike H.R. 3531, which created a new, special form of protection for databases, the new bill instead prohibits the unfair use of the data collected in a database.

This issue has been the source of major concern within the scientific community, including AGI and a number of its Member Societies. On October 31st, the AAAS Board of Directors unanimously voted to approve a statement on database protection that will now go to the presidents of the 235 AAAS affiliate societies for their endorsement. The statement and related information on this issue is available through the AGI web site.

Nuclear Waste Legislation Moves Ahead on Two Fronts
On October 30th, operating under restrictive rules that limit debate and allow the leadership to choose which amendments may be offered, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 1270 by a veto-proof majority of 307-120. Attention now shifts back to the Senate, which passed a similar bill, S. 104, in April that was two votes shy of the two-thirds majority necessary to override the threatened presidential veto. The House vote took place on a version of the bill passed by the Commerce Committee. The Resources Committee had produced a competing version that included several provisions added by the Nevada delegation, but that version was blocked by House leadership.

Earlier in October, the House passed H.R. 629, which would allow a low-level radioactive waste compact between Texas, Maine, and Vermont to go forward. The measure passed over objections from some of the Texas delegation who raised environmental justice concerns. Companion legislation in the Senate is awaiting a floor vote.

Progress on Land Sovereignty Bills
On October 7th, the House of Representatives passed two bills dealing with public lands. The first, H.R. 901, the American Land Sovereignty Protection Act, would end US participation in the United Nations Biosphere Reserves and World Heritage programs and eliminate the designation of 67 sites in the United States unless they are approved by Congress. The legislation, which passed the House by a 236-191 vote, must now pass the Senate before going to the President. The Administration is firmly opposed to the bill and issued a veto threat on September 23rd.

The other bill, passed by a similar margin, is H.R. 1127, the National Monument Fairness Act of 1997. This legislation, sponsored by House parks subcommittee Chairman Jim Hansen (R-Utah), would limit the President's ability to designate national monuments under the Antiquities Act of 1906. The bill is a reaction to President Clinton's designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah last year in order to halt resource development in the area, a move vigorously opposed by Utah officials. H.R. 1127 requires approval from Congress and the governor and legislature of the affected state(s) for proposed monuments larger than 5,000 acres. The bill must now pass the Senate before going to the President. The Administration is firmly opposed to the bill and has promised a veto. In a related development, the White House recently complied with a subpoena to give documents related to the President's 1996 designation of the Grand Staircase Monument to the House Resources Committee as part of an ongoing investigation.

Contributed by David Applegate and Kasey Shewey, AGI Government Affairs

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Last updated November 15, 1997

American Geological Institute Home Page

Government Affairs Program Home Page