Uncertain Fate: Office of Science Authorization Legislation

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Publication date: 
5 September 2003

Despite much attention that has been given to the relatively flat funding profile for the Department of Energy's Office of Science, and physical sciences in general, the outlook on a legislative initiative to increase the Office of Science budget is clouded. Whether this initiative, a rather small portion of the massive and hugely controversial energy policy bill, will ever get to President Bush's desk is a large unknown.

Both the House and Senate have passed energy policy bills with good authorization language and numbers for the Office of Science. While these provisions are relatively noncontroversial, they are part of the much larger energy bill that has been resistant to compromise over issues such as drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, fuel efficiency standards for vehicles, nuclear plant liability, and control of greenhouse gases.

The House passed its energy policy bill in mid-April. Provisions in the bill, such as that allowing exploitation of oil and gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, will make meshing of the bills difficult. Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM), the author of the Senate energy bill, knows how to count votes, and did not include an Arctic drilling provision in his bill. Despite Domenici's attempts to craft a bill that would win sufficient support in the Senate, he was unable to get his version through the Senate before it left for the August recess. In a somewhat surprising move, the Senate approved a different version of the energy bill - that which it had earlier passed but which had died in the last Congress. Said Domenici, "This deal is not how I envisioned getting an energy bill to conference. But if it gets us closer to our goal, I consider it a win."

That conference is scheduled to begin today. In a statement issued after the Senate vote, Domenici said that "the final bill will look more like what I produced in committee this spring" than the substitute version. That "spring" bill contains numbers similar to those in the House-passed bill, although the Senate bill also includes several key management changes (see /fyi/2003/060.html.)

Since that vote, there was the power blackout in the Northeast and Midwest, and gasoline prices have escalated. Proponents of a comprehensive energy policy bill point to the blackout as a reason why the entire bill should be passed. Opponents of some of the provisions, such as that dealing with Arctic drilling, advocate pulling out some of the noncontroversial provisions and passing them as a stand-alone bill. How the Office of Science provisions would fare under either of these scenarios is unknown.

The bottom line: including the Office of Science numbers and provisions in the larger energy bill is both good news and bad news. Good news if an energy policy bill is approved by Congress and sent to the President Bush, as it is uncertain if there would ever be a separate Office of Science authorization bill. On the other hand, bad news if the entire bill fails, taking with it the Office of Science provisions that have won support on both sides of the aisle in both chambers.