The Republicans took control of the Senate and strengthened their hold on the House on November 4. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) is headed for a runoff election in Louisiana, the GOP has won at least 8 Senate seats and will have 243 seats (see here) in the House. Between election losses, retirements, and other moves, the House’s Historic Preservation Caucus will lose at least 13 members (the votes in Rep. Louise Slaughter’s race in New York are still being counted).
How will the election results affect cultural heritage, historic preservation and archaeology?
Congress is scheduled to tackle several transportation issues next year, including highway and transit (the current MAP-21 extension expires on May 31, 2015), FAA and Amtrak. With this crowded agenda, we will be watching closely the revamped House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee, and Senate Commerce, Science & Transportation (CST) Committee.
Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV), who has served as the top Democrat on the T&I Committee, lost his re-election bid after 38 years in Congress. Reps. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and John Garamendi (D-CA) are both campaigning to replace him on the Committee. Most expect DeFazio to win; if he does, he will have to give up his Ranking Member post on the Natural Resources Committee.
We expect that “streamlining” will continue to be the trend in Transportation legislation, with additional proposals to reduce the effort required for projects to comply with the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
House Space and Technology (SST) Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) has already wreaked havoc in the science community, particularly with respect to the National Science Foundation’s funding of the social sciences, including archaeology and anthropology (see, for example, Science article here and Slate article here). Just last week he published an op-ed in The Hill arguing that social science research is not in the national interest (here). Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Ranking Member of the SST, and others have pushed back, but with a Republican-dominated House and Senate, the GOP is sure to increase its efforts to control NSF grant-making, particularly outside of STEM.
The Environment and Climate Change
With many predicting the loss of archaeological and cultural sites as the oceans expand (see this interesting analysis of the problem from AIA’s Archaeology Magazine, here), how lawmakers address the problem is critical. Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) is likely to be made chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee. He denies the existence of global warming, calling it a hoax. Such leadership will do nothing to stem the tide of climate change and site destruction.
In Energy & Natural Resources, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) will be the new Chair. She supports fossil fuels and expanded drilling, as did former Chair Landrieu. Murkowski, however, is expected to support the Keystone XL pipeline and push for construction of a proposed 17-mile road in Alaska that would pass through a federal wildlife refuge. (Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has stuck firmly by her rejection of the proposal.)
We are also watching the House Natural Resources Committee for signs that they will pursue reform of NEPA. Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA) will be stepping down from his chairmanship at the end of the year, and Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) is expected to become chair. Rep. Bishop is currently the chair of the subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation, and in that capacity he requested a General Accounting Office report last year on the level of effort and time required for NEPA compliance on major projects. Under his leadership, we expect that the Committee will continue its review of NEPA, with a focus on whether environmental regulations are more appropriate at the state, rather than federal, level.
Bright Spots for Preservation
One bright spot from this week’s election was in New Jersey, where voters approved a constitutional amendment dedicates money from a business tax toward open space preservation. Historic preservation is an important goal of the amendment.
The National Trust also reported a victory in Hamilton County, Ohio, where residents elected to implement a one-quarter of one-percent sales tax levy to help restore Cincinnati’s Union Terminal.
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Chances are slim for the Senate and President Obama to reach compromise on key legislation. Majority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) famously told the National Journal in 2010 that “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Obama joked in 2013 that he was not interested in getting a drink with McConnell – although Obama changed course last week, saying “Actually I would enjoy having some Kentucky bourbon with Mitch McConnell.” While a few bottles of bourbon would certainly liven things up on the Hill, it’s unlikely to change the parties’ fundamental disagreements, primarily on immigration and health care. There is some talk of finding agreement on tax reform, but making significant changes in our nation’s tax code would require major compromise on both sides.
Despite their large gains, Republicans won’t have a sufficient majority in the Senate to defeat a presidential veto. While President Obama has issued only two vetoes during his 6 years in office, a Democratic Senate blocked most highly objectionable legislation before it reached his desk. Without that buffer, the preservation community needs to focus more of its efforts on the administration and the White House.