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Where SCB Members Can Become Involved in Policy: An Overview of the U.S. Government

For SCB and its members to be effective and efficient with their interventions in the realm of domestic U.S. policy, it is important to have a basic understanding of the structure of the U.S. Government, the budget process for funding the U.S. Government, and the legal limits on the type and how much lobbying SCB is permitted to do with respect to certain types of policy issues.  What follows is a primer on these three topics.

Structure of the U.S. Government

The United States Congress is comprised of two bodies: the United States Senate, which is represented by two Senators from each State, and the United States House of Representatives, whose 435 seats are apportioned by population throughout the country.  Click HERE to learn who your representatives are and to contact them by phone or email.  Congress makes public policy through the passage of laws.  Public laws affect policy in two ways: a substantive law will address specific subject matter, while appropriations bills determine how much or little of a certain activity a Federal agency can engage in.  The Congress also has a Constitutional duty to conduct oversight of the activities of the Executive branch and to investigate matters of public concern.  Each Chambers of the Congress holds hundreds of hearings each year, a portion of which are on issues relating to the conservation of biological diversity and the protection of the environment.

Congress is assisted in its work by three Federal agencies.  The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) provides non-partisan, independent analysis of economic and budgetary issues to support the Congressional budget process. The CBO determines how much money implementing a proposed piece of legislation will either cost or save.  The CBO also provides non-partisan reports on the important policy issues for the Congress.   The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is the Congress' "watchdog" and investigates how the Federal government spends taxpayer dollars.  It only initiates investigations when requested to do so by a member of Congress.  The GAO provides a database of its reports, some of which focus on the efficacy of Federal agency efforts to protect biological diversity.  Finally, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) provides policy and legal analysis to committees and Members of the Congress, regardless of party affiliation. While its analysis is strictly for Congress' benefit, some of its research reports are maintained in a database by the National Council for Science and the Environment.

The President makes policy through Executive Orders, and by electing to sign or veto legislation. Executive Orders are essentially directives to the Executive Branch agencies, directing them as to how to implement existing laws. Executive Orders cannot be used to make new law, and to the extent that an Executive Order goes beyond existing statutes, it is unenforceable. Presidential vetoes of legislation can be overridden by a 2/3 majority vote in each chamber of Congress. The President can suggest legislation to Congress. The President’s effectiveness in promoting legislation is greatly enhanced if the President’s political party holds a majority of seats in both the House and the Senate, or either or them, or if the legislation is written in such away that it appeals to both political parties.

Within the White House are several offices that have a profound influence on policies affecting biological diversity.  The Council on Environmental Quality coordinates Federal environmental efforts, develops new environmental policies, and oversees the implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act.  The Office of Science and Technology Policy advises the President on the effects of science and technology on domestic and international affairs to ensure that the Executive branch's decisions are informed by sound science.  Finally, the Office of Management and Budget coordinates all Executive regulatory initiatives, including any regulations that are designed to protect biological diversity.

More information can be found HERE.

Regulatory agencies, such as the Department of Interior and Environmental Protection Agency, create policy by interpreting and implementing the legislation passed by Congress. When an agency makes a new regulation or amends an existing regulation, it is required by the Administrative Procedure Act to publish a notice of the proposed change in The Federal Register. The agency must accept comments from the public. When it publishes the final rule, it must explain how it is responding to the public comments received. The following are the primary Federal agencies that protect and manage biological diversity within the United States

The Federal Courts interpret legislation and determine the validity of actions of the President and the regulatory agencies. Though Courts can order actions to remedy violations of law, or to prevent activities that are not consistent with the law, the Courts cannot make new law. If a statute is unclear or fails to address a specific issue, and cannot be interpreted by the Courts in a manner consistent with the accepted “rules” of judicial interpretation, the Courts will state that the matter will have to be resolved by the Congress. If Congress does not agree with a judicial ruling regarding legislation, it can (as long as the law is Constitutional) change existing legislation to reach a different outcome.

The Federal Budget Process

As experts and citizens, individual SCB members may want to contact their representatives in the Congress to discuss how elements of the federal budget for next year may affect their conservation work. Every Member of Congress has opportunities to affect the federal budget in different ways. Thus every citizen of the United States has the ability to speak to that process through her or his representative and senators.

Provisions within the budget may pose threats to biodiversity.  For example, the Congress may reduce funding for programs that acquire native habitats for endangered species, or Congress may include policy provisions that require an agency to bypass existing environmental review and analysis.  In recent years, these policy “riders” have become the primary means for Congress to change policies that impact biodiversity.

The budget season begins on February 1st when the President submits his budget to the Congress.  The President's budget also contains proposed policy changes and new legislation that would have significant budgetary impacts in the following year.  In addition, each agency provides its own detailed budget justification explaining why it is requesting a particular level of funding for the next fiscal year, which begins on October 1st of that year, and ends September 30th of the following year.  

Multiple Congressional committees with jurisdiction over agencies within the Executive branch, will hold hearings on the President's budget request and provide their “Views and Estimates,” or advice to the House and Senate Appropriations committees respectively.   Each of the thirteen Appropriations subcommittees then hold their own long series of hearings over the late winter and spring. At these hearings, testimony is taken from agency heads, individual members of Congress, and interested organizations, including scientific societies.

At the end of these hearings, the Appropriations subcommittee prepares the a draft bill detailing the funding levels of various Federal agencies, as well as detailed reports for each bill that provides detailed instructions on how funds should be spent by the executive agencies.  Appropriations bills often contain riders that alter underlying substantive law, effectively changing national policy.  Once the bill is introduced, it is "marked up" by the Appropriations Committee where the bill may be amended.  For example, members may offer amendments to include new policy riders, they may offer amendments to delete policy riders, or they can offer amendments to alter the particular level of funding for a particular agency activity.  

Once these bills are approved by the Appropriations Committees, usually by June or July, they are considered by the full House and Senate.  Here again, there is an opportunity for members of Congress to attempt to amend the bill. Once bills are passed by each House, they are combined in a Conference Committee of senior representatives to resolve the differences between the two versions of the bills that have been passed by each house of the Congress.  These senior representatives write a Conference Committee report that explains the combined form their bill has taken.

When Congress runs out of time it usually approves a continuing resolution to fund the government for a limited period of time or gathers the remaining bills into one consolidated omnibus resolution that may contain several titles that would normally be found in separate appropriations bills and often funds those agencies not yet covered by a separate bill for the remainder of the fiscal year.  In recent years, even continuing resolutions and omnibus bills contain many policy riders, often impacting the conservation of biodiversity by the executive branch of the Federal government.

Lobbying - What SCB Members Can and Cannot Do

Most scientific organizations have nonprofit status under the Internal Revenue Code and Regulations. Nonprofit status carries two significant limitations on the activities of nonprofit organizations. First, nonprofit organizations can not engage in electoral politics. Second, nonprofits are permitted to lobby, but only to a limited extent.

Lobbying has a specific definition under the Internal Revenue Code and the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995. It means, “any attempt to influence legislation through an effort to affect the opinions of the general public or through communication with any member or employee of a legislative body or with any government official or employee who may participate in the formulation of legislation.” Expressly exempted are the following activities:

  1. Making available the results of nonpartisan analysis, study, or research,
  2. Examining and discussing broad social, economic, and similar problems,
  3. Providing technical advice or assistance to a governmental body
  4. Appearing before or communicating with any legislative body about a possible decision of that body that might affect the existence of the organization, its powers and duties, its tax-exempt status, or the deduction of contributions to the organization, or
  5. Communicating with a government official or employee, other than a member or employee of a legislative body