ARCHIVED: Washington Brief - March 2007

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Welcome to the 110th Congress
The 109th Congress adjourned sine die in December, ending a lame-duck session during which very little was accomplished beyond extending the Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government funded through mid-February. The November mid-term elections brought a sea change to the balance of power in the federal government, putting an end to twelve years of Republican control. Thus the lame-duck session was all about deciding how to fill key leadership positions and making committee assignments. In-coming Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Reid both signaled shortly after the elections that among their top goals would be ethics reform and greater openness and transparency to regain the public's trust.

While our advocacy work is purely bipartisan, the change in majority in both House and Senate, though slim in numbers, means for the most part positive news for many issues on our legislative agenda, not to mention needed oversight that has been sorely lacking from Congress for several years. The November issue of the AALL Washington E-Bulletin [PDF] ( http://www.aallnet.org/aallwash/eBulletin112006.pdf) provides you with full details about the important leadership changes in both the House and the Senate and how they will impact our key legislative issues. Check it out as it also gives you valuable tips on how you can become part of the AALL advocacy team!

It was no surprise to those of us inside the beltway that the 109th Congress adjourned leaving unfinished eleven outstanding FY 2007 appropriation bills—the only two exceptions were for the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. In December, the new chairs of the Appropriations Committees, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) and Rep. David Obey (D-WI-7) agreed that they would extend the CR through the remainder of FY 2007, allowing lawmakers to focus attention on the FY 2008 budget. The problem with the CR is that funding is distributed based on the lowest total among the FY 2006 appropriations, the Senate approved FY 2007 levels, or the House approved FY 2007 levels. This is dire news for many agencies, including the Government Printing Office. GPO had requested a supplemental $10 million for FY 2007, most of which had been approved by both the House and Senate, with $2 million earmarked for the production and distribution of the 2006 U.S. Code. We hope to get Hill support to restore some of that funding if a supplemental bill is added to the CR.

On the lighter side, in terms of greater openness, the House Administration Committee has just announced it is offering a web log utility to allow members of the House to blog using their official Web sites. This allows the offices to connect easily with and get timely in-put directly from constituents. Only a handful of members have taken advantage of the new tool, so if you have a minute, send a quick email to your House representative and urge her/him to get with the 21st Century and adopt this new capability so that you can interact with them on important issues throughout the 110th. The possibilities for dialog are endless! ( http://www.house.gov/)

Update on EPA Library Closures
Last January, we learned that President Bush's proposed 2007 budget included $2.5 million in cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) library system. This meant a $150,000 cut in federal funding for each of the regional libraries. I have been involved in efforts since then to question EPA's actions and lobby Congress to provide needed oversight on these closures. They began last spring, even before the start of the 2007 fiscal year. To date, the EPA's headquarters library in Washington has been closed to the public, and regional libraries in Chicago, Dallas and Kansas City have been shut down. Cuts to hours and services have occurred at the Boston, New York, San Francisco and Seattle regional libraries.

Last February, AALL, ALA and SLA submitted a letter for a House Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on EPA's FY 2007 budget opposing the cuts but we were unable to get any support from members at that time. In April, along with colleagues from ALA and SLA, I met with the then-Acting CIO of EPA, Linda Travers, and her staff. They painted a rosy picture, stating that the closings are all part of a commitment to modernize and make EPA materials easily available to everyone over the Internet. They assured us that public access would not be harmed because EPA would digitize all the materials from the libraries that were being closed by early 2007.

We pointed out that 20% of EPA library users are people who have government contracts, city, state and local governments, industry, environmental groups, researchers, and members of the business and legal communities. We asked to see the plan for their digitization efforts—but there was none at the time. And we sought assurances that members of the public in areas affected by the closures would be able to access important EPA materials in an easy and timely fashion during the digitization process. We stressed that EPA should transform their library functions in a way that preservers a national capability to serve researchers from within and outside of the agency. In a footnote to the meeting, I pointed out that the loss of public access would likely result in more FOIA requests that would be frustrating and costly to both the EPA and the public.

Hitting a brick wall with EPA staff, we beefed up getting media and Hill attention on the closures over the summer. We also reached out to environmental groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, a DC-based organization that has become very outspoken against the EPA's actions. It was very important to us that others beyond the library community would be aware of the impact of the closures. We were successful this fall on both counts. Key members of Congress led by Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Representatives John Dingall (D-MI-15) and Henry Waxman (D-CA-30) have sent letters and made strong public statements opposing the closures.

In addition, Representatives Dingell, Waxman, and Bart Gordon asked the Government Accountability Office to start an inquiry into the closings, and also requested that the EPA administrator, Stephen Johnson, cease the destruction of library materials immediately. With the outcome of the November elections, all of these members now chair important congressional committees so we are very hopeful that there will be some much-needed oversight over the EPA's actions. It's important to keep in mind too that the funding for the libraries has not actually been cut since the EPA, like GPO and other agencies, is under the CR—their FY 2007 appropriations bill has not been enacted.

Last week, EPA invited me and colleagues from ALA and SLA to meet with staff from their Offices of Environmental Information and Public Affairs. Eight months after our first meeting with them, they wanted our advice on how they could beef up their public outreach efforts. To that end, two EPA staff members will be attending the ALA Midwinter meeting at the end of the month. They said that following a visit to EPA in early December by congressional and GAO staff, they have stopped the "recycling" of materials and will not make any more changes impacting public access for 90 days. Interestingly, they noted the importance of both digital and physical collections, not just for the public but also for their own staff. And it's pretty clear that they too expect oversight hearings early in the new Congress. Last but not least, they expressed an understanding that the public needs access to the expertise of professional librarians as well as to the agency's print and digital collections.

Clearly public pressure, together with the crucial changes in leadership on the Hill, is now being taken seriously by EPA. It's just too bad that eight months after our first meeting with their staff, we are still waiting to see a plan for their digitization efforts, including a time schedule, the priorities for digitization, the standards they are using or any other data to demonstrate that they are moving in the right direction.


Mary Alice Baish
Associate Washington Affairs Representative
Edward B. WIlliams Law Library
111 G Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20001-1417
202/662-9200 * FAX:202/662-9202
email:baish@law.georgetown.edu

 


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