From the Hill

From the Hill

Regulatory regime for greenhouse gases discussed

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held an all-day conference on April 4 on the issues involved in creating a program to regulate the greenhouse gases that cause climate change. Among other issues, the committee examined whether limits should be imposed on particular industries or on all industry and how, as part of a trading regime, emission allowances would be allocated for companies that exceed mandated targets.

Although the conference was originally expected to lead to legislation, Sens. Pete Domenici (R-NM) and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), chair and ranking member of the committee, respectively, have said that they do not expect to introduce a bill during the current session. “Designing and implementing a mandatory system will be very difficult, both politically and economically,” Domenici said at the outset of the conference. “But we need to start somewhere. This conference is our starting point.’’

During the meeting, a consensus emerged among most participants, including many from the electric industry and other industrial sectors, that if a mandatory economy-wide system is to be imposed, it should be done soon.

“Customers and shareholders need greater certainty,’’ said Ruth Shaw, president of Duke Energy’s nuclear subsidiary. Duke is currently evaluating how it will spend billions of dollars to provide power to its growing customer base during the next 50 years, Shaw said, and wants to know what future carbon limits will be.

All participants agreed on the pivotal role of new technology. Most witnesses argued that a mandatory system would create incentives for faster adoption of technology than would a purely voluntary approach. Those opposed to a mandatory system, including Southern Company, testified that they would adopt new low-carbon technologies even if no mandatory regulation was imposed.

Many companies advocated that legislation—whether it involves a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system—be phased in, becoming more stringent over time. They argued that in a cap-and-trade system, the initial allocation of allowances to emit carbon emissions should essentially be free, with the auctioning of allowances permitted as technology develops. Participants also discussed who would receive permits and how to use permits as a way to distribute the costs associated with reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The point at which emissions would be regulated was a subject of debate, although some said that this would be primarily an administrative decision that would not affect the effectiveness of the program. A majority of witnesses agreed that regulating emissions upstream at the level of fuel producers would be most effective, because it would send price signals throughout the economy. Regulating downstream, at the point of carbon emitters, would require regulating millions of small companies and individuals. A hybrid approach, which would regulate small sources upstream and larger sources at the plant level, could achieve additional reductions.

Businesses tended to agree on the need for a safety valve, such a ceiling on emissions credit prices. They also thought it was important to receive credits for carbon offsets: projects that negate the impact of a company’s emissions by avoiding an equal amount of pollution, usually at another site, or by sequestering an equal amount of carbon.

Billy Pizer of Resources for the Future in Washington, DC, explained the importance of working within the constraints facing business, noting that “No mitigation benefits will arise if a policy cannot be enacted.”

Effectiveness of Project Bioshield examined

A hearing in early April of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Health highlighted continuing congressional concerns that the country’s program to combat the possible use of biological, chemical, and radiological weapons still lacks a strategic plan, focuses too narrowly on possible acts of terrorism, and does not provide sufficient incentives for industry cooperation.

Congress created Project Bioshield two years ago in the wake of the release of anthrax on Capitol Hill and amid concerns that terrorists would seek to use such weapons in the future. The interagency program, funded at $5.6 billion over 10 years, was designed to accelerate R&D and the procurement of countermeasures against chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear agents.

In testimony before the committee, Alex M. Azar II, a deputy director at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), stated that approximately $35.6 million had been awarded in research grants and contracts to date, and another $1.08 billion had been obligated for the procurement of vaccines to be stockpiled.

Azar said that in order for a countermeasure to qualify for Project Bioshield, it must have solid clinical experience and/or research data must support that it could eventually qualify for Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval within eight years. He noted that the 2004 act that created the program also states that “no payment shall be made until delivery has been made of a portion, acceptable to the secretary, of the total number of units contracted for.” He emphasized that “it is estimated that the cost of developing and bringing to market a new drug is between $800 million and $1.7 billion.” Thus, the significant investments that must be made before a countermeasure would be eligible for Project Bioshield funding require a substantial risk to industry, especially small businesses.

In addition, Azar argued, liability protection for industry remains a major source of concern, especially in an emergency when the government must procure a vaccine that has not received FDA approval. Under questioning from subcommittee members, Azar acknowledged that liability issues had yet impeded the agency from obtaining any countermeasures. Rep. Michael Burgess (R-TX), a medical doctor, argued that the government’s focus on industry liability while ignoring the health risk to the general public was shortsighted.“The public doesn’t understand why they don’t have [legal] protection against an [untested] vaccine,” he stated.

Subcommittee chairman Rep. Nathan Deal (R-GA) and Rep. Barbara Cubin (R-WY) expressed concern that Project Bioshield was restricted to intentional acts of terror and not naturally occurring infectious diseases, such as the growing threat of an avian flu pandemic. Cubin argued that a human pandemic poses an equal threat to national security. Azar stated that the government’s legal counsel was analyzing whether the H5N1 virus would be eligible for funds.

Reps. John Shimkus (R-IL) and Anna Eshoo (D-CA) meanwhile sharply questioned Azar on what they perceived to be inertia on the part of the agency. “I think what’s lacking in all this is a real sense of urgency,” Rep. Eshoo said. Azar conceded that no strategic plan exists, which has impeded the private sector’s ability to anticipate government needs.

Deal and Shimkus argued that a centralized government agency, rather than the current interagency model, is required to make the program effective.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) recently reintroduced legislation that would revise Project Bioshield by strengthening coordination and providing added incentives for private-sector investment. The Burr bill (S. 2564) would establish a Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Agency (BARDA) within HHS to coordinate and oversee activities that support and accelerate advanced R&D of “qualified” countermeasures. BARDA would be the single coordinating organization for implementing Project Bioshield. The bill would also establish a National Biodefense Advisory Board to provide advice and guidance to the secretary of HHS on the potential threats and opportunities presented by advances in the biological and life sciences.

An earlier version of Burr’s bill, the Biodefense and Pandemic Vaccine and Drug Development Act of 2005 (S. 1873), was heavily criticized because it proposed to bypass Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requirements. It would have allowed either the secretary of HHS or the director of BARDA to conduct meetings and consultations in a closed setting. It also would have provided full exemption to BARDA from having to comply with FOIA. Critics complained that the exemption was too broad and noted that even intelligence agencies lacked such an expansive exemption.

Senate bill would raise H-1B visa quotas

Shortly before departing for the Memorial Day recess, the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill (S. 2611) that would raise the existing H1B non-immigrant visa quota from the current 65,000 to 115,000 annually and increase that number by 20% if the cap is reached.

The H-1B visa is a guest worker program targeted primarily at high-tech professionals. Increasing the number of visas issued each year has been a goal of information technology and engineering companies that rely on foreign nationals to meet existing shortages.

Although interest in H-1B visas has waxed and waned on Capitol Hill over the years, the subject was given an added boost by the current wave of concern over our nation’s ability to compete in a global market. Reports such as the National Academies’ Rising Above the Gathering Storm include recommendations to reform immigration and visa processing.

Several proposed bills aimed at increasing U.S. economic competitiveness address the H-1B visa, although in slightly different ways. For example, the Protecting America’s Competitive Edge through Education and Research Act of 2006 (PACE-Education Act, S. 2198), written in response to the Academies’ report, includes language to increase the number of H-1B visas, but by a mere 10,000. It further restricts that allocation to “applicants with doctorate degrees in science or engineering from a United States university.”

The National Innovation Act (S. 2109), meanwhile, simply includes a sense of the Senate resolution that the United States should seek to retain science and technology (S&T) talent through H-1B visa or other programs. It too recommends that preference be given to those who have received an advanced degree from a U.S. university.

Immigration reform, however, is a complex subject that elicits a spectrum of opinions from all sectors, and the H1B visa is no exception. Many foreign nationals who initially came to the United States on an H-1B have used their time here to obtain a green card and ultimately to become citizens. Although the private sector eagerly seeks these professionals, not all of the S&T community is as eager to have the number of visas increased. For example, the electrical engineering community has fought against any efforts to increase the existing H-1B caps, arguing that sufficient talent already exists in the United States and pointing to the unemployment rates of computer programmers to support their position.

The current immigration controversy is spawning creative visa reform programs to expand the U.S. technical talent pool. The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 introduced by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (RTN) would create a new F-4 visa category for foreign nationals pursuing advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and related fields at U.S. colleges and universities. Furthermore, it would automatically extend for one year a student visa for foreign nationals “who receive doctorates or the equivalent in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, or other fields of national need at qualified United States institutions” in order to facilitate their ability to seek employment in the United States.

The PACE-Education Act, which currently has more than 60 cosponsors, outlines similar measures to ease the ability of highly skilled foreign students graduating in the United States to move into jobs and smooth the path toward legal permanent-resident status. The rationale behind the provision is that advanced-degree students who first must leave the country after graduating may be less tempted to return for employment opportunities if they must first reapply for another set of visas.

Another recommendation included in both the PACE-Education and immigration reform legislation is to exempt “aliens who have earned an advanced degree in science, technology, engineering, or math and have been working in a related field” from annual numerical limitations that are placed on employment-based immigrants. The exemption would also extend to the individual’s spouse and children.

The Senate immigration bill appears to be the vehicle for change for visa reform for the S&T community. Unfortunately, it must now be reconciled with the much more narrowly focused House bill, the Border Security and Immigration Reform Act (H.R. 4437), which deals almost entirely with enforcement. It will be a challenge to achieve a compromise between the two dissimilar visions, given the limited number of days remaining in the congressional session.

Congress attempts to rein in earmarks

In the wake of recent lobbying scandals, leaders in both chambers of Congress are attempting to control the number of earmarks introduced into bills after conference. The habit of inserting earmarks late in the legislative game has increased during the past few years, as individual representatives insert provisions for pet projects for their districts into must-pass legislation. The R&D budgets of a number of agencies have not been immune from this practice.

On March 29, the Senate passed (by a vote of 90 to 8) the Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act of 2006 (S. 2349), a lobbying reform bill that would place restrictions on earmarks. The bill, introduced by Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS), requires that any earmark attached to a bill in a conference report after the legislation has already passed the chamber will be subject to a point of order. This means that the earmark is subject to floor debate unless the sponsor is able to obtain 60 votes to counter the point of order.

The House also weighed in on the subject with H.R. 4975, the Lobbying Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006. The bill, which has been reported out of the House Judiciary and Government Reform Committees, would require that earmarks in appropriations bills include the sponsor’s name. It would also make earmarks introduced in conference reports out of order.

Although some R&D agencies, notably the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, have stayed free of earmarks, other agencies are finding that they are becoming exceedingly prevalent.

In fiscal year (FY) 2006, R&D earmarks set a new record, climbing to $2.4 billion, a 13% increase over the previous year. Five government organizations—the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Department of Energy (DOE), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and Department of Defense—receive 94% of the R&D earmarks. For DOE and NOAA R&D, as well as extramural agricultural research at USDA, earmarks make up more than one out of every five dollars.

The increases in earmarking among federal R&D agencies have coincided with declining R&D budgets. In FY 2006, the overall federal investment in R&D grew just 1.7%, compared to the 13% surge in earmarked dollars, forcing agencies to cut into their core competitive programs to accommodate the appropriations. Thus, if earmarks are curtailed, the spending power of some agencies could increase even in a constant budget.


“From the Hill” is prepared by the Center for Science, Technology, and Congress at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (www.aaas.org/spp) in Washington, D.C., and is based on articles from the center’s bulletin Science & Technology in Congress.