Welcome to Federal Policy Week, a blog that covers federal policy developments in education, research, science, agriculture, immigration, energy, environment, natural resources, and intellectual property. 

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Capitol News:  

Congressional & Administrative

  • CONGRESS: Student Loan Rates; ESEA; Immigration; Medical Research; Appropriations; Patent Bills; Farm Bill; Energy Future?; House Plans for June; Congressional Hearings.
  • Administration & independent agencies:  Nominations & Confirmations; Ag & Environment; Natural Gas Exports; NIH & Sequestration; Fracking on Public Lands; Wind & Bird Kills; Gainful Employment.

Noteworthy News:  NSF Merit Review; Keystone and Slavery; Carbon Levels; Climate and Insurers; Common Core; High Tech & Immigration; Costs of Coastlines; Visas & Foreign Countries; College Rates and Counseling; Loan Payments; Labor & Community Colleges; MOOCs, Wild Horses; Farm Programs & Water; Rising Master’s; Testing for Testing; Declining College Enrollment; Humanities PhDs; Math vs. Reading;

In the Know: A Preview of Upcoming Events in DC.

Capitol News.  


Student Loan Rates.

  • House.  The House passed a bill, Smarter Solutions for Students Act, linking student loan rates to market rates on a near party-line vote.  As described by in the House Education & Workforce Committee fact sheets, the bill shifts all federal student loans (except Perkins loans) to a market-based interest rates.  The rates vary by loan, as do the caps on the loans, but generally they are based on the 10-year Treasury note plus a percentage (Stafford at plus 2.5% and PLUS loans at plus 4.5%).  The House Democrats, including leaders on the House Education Committee, generally opposed the bill and the President has threatened to veto the bill in a Statement of Administration Policy. Chairman Harkin (D-IA) of the Senate HELP Committee issued a statement opposing the House bill.
  • Senate.  The Senate has not yet passed a bill on student loan rates. Proposals have been introduced, including by Chairman Harkin and Majority Leader Reid (D-NM).  Their proposal, The Student Loan Affordability Act provides a two-year extension of the current loan-rate for Stafford Loans, which is capped at 3.4 percent. The costs of preventing the doubling of rates set for July 1, 2013 would be paid for by changes to tax laws that impact oil companies, foreign companies and a few other sectors.  Senator Warren (D-MA) also released legislation that would reduce the rate to the same rate major banks receive from the Federal Reserve (0.75%), to mixed reviews. Majority Leader Reid announced that he planned to bring the Harkin-Reed bill to a vote – votes on that measure, and a competing Republican measure both failed.  House Republicans on the House Education Committee criticized the Senate’s actions.

ESEA.  The Senate HELP Committee is debating a new bill, called Strengthening America’s Schools Act of 2013, introduced by Senate Democrats, to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).  The bill attempts to provide greater “attention on children in their early years to ensure they come to school ready to learn; encourage equity through greater transparency and fair distribution of resources; Sustain current state reform efforts and provide them the flexibility they need to improve their schools; and Support great teachers and principals and ensure that all children receive the best instruction.”  House Education Committee Chairman Kline announced his vision for reauthorization of ESEA. The legislation, the Student Success Act, includes such changes to the current law as replacing federal requirements with state ones including for the “Adequate Yearly Progress” Metric, “Highly Qualified Teacher” requirements, mandated actions for poorly performing schools, eliminates or consolidates programs, and greatly expands magnets and charters (vouchers).

Immigration.  The Senate Judiciary Committee passed comprehensive immigration legislation. Senate Majority Leader Reid has scheduled a cloture vote on the bill for next week. In the meantime, the House Judiciary Committee is moving forward with legislations, as is a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House, reports Roll Call, and may have reached a deal. The House Judiciary and Government Reform Committee Chairman introduced the SKILLS Visa Act, which includes provisions to increase the number of H-1B visas, repeals the employment-based per-country cap, and green cards to graduates of US universities wit STEM degrees. The House Republican Leadership has made clear that they will not pass the Senate bill as written, and take a piecemeal approach, like with the SKILLS Visa Act.  The Senate plans to vote on the legislation in July, with Senator Reid claiming he can get 60 votes.

Medical Research.  Once again, House Majority Leader Cantor reiterated his support of research, but limited his support to medical research, citing illnesses faced by close family members.  Cantor expressed support for funding, despite a call for funding cuts generally by House Republicans.  A bipartisan group of House Members introduced legislation, Kids First Research Act of 2013 that would transfer $13 million from public financing for elections to pediatric medical research.

Appropriations.  The House Appropriations Committee released funding numbers for each subcommittee, called 302Bs.  Several subcommittees, including LHHS, which provides funding for the Department of Education and NIH, face severe funding cuts. House Democrats strongly criticized the numbers as too low and unworkable.

Patent Bill. The House Judiciary Committee Chairman Goodlatte (R-VA) introduced draft patent legislation, which Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Leahy plans to introduce, as well.  The legislation.  The bill focused on patent legislation filled by so-called “patent trolls” and hopes to fulfill the promise to the high-tech industry that did successfully have the provisions included in the recently passed patent reform bill.  The bill summary focuses on provisions reigning in “abusive litigation.”  The Administration has also released a plan to address “patent trolls.”

Farm Bill.  The Senate Agriculture Committee passed its five-year farm bill, which cuts funding by $23 billion. Some key provisions of the bill include ending direct payments to farmers, require conservation compliance for crop insurance payments, ends payments to “non-farmers,” and consolidates conservation programs.  Next week, the Senate will vote on the Farm Bill. The House Agriculture Committee also passed a farm bill that cuts nearly $40 billion almost double the amount of the Senate bill.  The bill eliminates direct payments, makes significant cuts to the nutrition programs, and eliminates many conservation programs.

Energy Future.  Senator Alexander (R-TN), member of the Senate Energy Committee and Ranking Member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy, unveiled a blueprint for the future of energy.   As part of his vision, Senator Alexander calls for four grand principles:  “Cheaper, not more expensive, energy; Clean, not just renewable, energy; Research and development, not government mandates; and, Free market, not government picking ‘winners and losers.’” During his speech, he expressed support for DOE’s ARPA-E program, small modular reactors, and natural gas.

House June Plans.  Congressman Cantor laid out plans for the June legislative session that includes appropriations bills (MilCon, Homeland Security, Defense, and Ag), defense authorization, the farm bill, and the Kids First Research Act (mentioned above),

Notable Congressional Hearings

Senate Energy:

Senate Commerce:

Senate HELP:

Senate Appropriations:

  • Chairwoman Mikulski (D-MD) wrote an op-ed on how sequestration is endangering the Nation.

House Energy:

House Science:

House Education:

House Appropriations:

House Natural Resources:

Administration & Independent Agencies:

Nominations and Confirmations..

  • EPA Administrator. The Senate EPW Committee voted favorably on the confirmation of EPA nominee Gina McCarthy, but on a party-line vote.  Her nomination still faces significant obstacles.
  • Commerce Secretary. Penny Pritzker, an heir to the Hyatt family fortune and Chicago resident has cleared the Senate Commerce Committee to be Secretary of Commerce.

Ag and Environment.  Secretary Vilsack introduced his vision for creating modern solutions for environmental changes, namely climate change.  His plan includes the creation of regional climate hubs, a new tool for soil carbon, and science-based advice on crop coverage.

Natural Gas Exports.  DOE announced that it would allow shipments of natural gas to Japan, over the objects of environmental groups and US manufacturers, who fear exporting gas will lead to higher prices domestically. DOE has approved at least two applications for export.

NIH and Sequestration.  NIH Director Collins released a document showing the negative impacts of sequestration on NIH.  The fact sheet attributes the decrease in 700 research grants and 750 fewer patients primarily to sequestration.  Over the long term, sequestration will delay medical research discoveries and harm the medical research workforce.

Fracking on Public Lands.  The Administration proposed new rules for fracking on public lands that focuses on the needs of private oil companies.  To the chagrin of environmental groups, the proposed new rules will allow companies to keep certain drilling fluid components confidential, reports The New York Times.

Wind and Birds. Despite federal laws requiring protection of eagles, the Administration is ignoring the killing of these birds in its effort to promote wind power, reports The Washington Post.  In its energy at all costs approach, the Administration is protecting wind producers despite its responsibility to fine or prosecute companies that kill the birds. An astounding number of birds are killed each year, specifically “more than 573,000 birds are killed by the country’s wind farms each year, including 83,000 hunting birds such as hawks, falcons and eagles…”

Gainful Employment.  ED has announced that it will not appeal the controversial gainful-employment rule decision by an appellate court to block some aspects of the rule. The Department will revisit the issue after holding hearings on student aid.


NSF Merit Funding.  A large number of scientific associations and groups, under the auspices of the Coalition for NSF, send House Science Committee Chairman Smith a letter espousing the virtues of merit review for NSF funding.  The letter comes in response to the Chairman’s draft High Quality Research Act which would fundamental alter peer-review. For more, see Federal Policy Week posting A Very Bad Bill.

Keystone and Slavery.  In a continuing effort to oppose the Keystone XL Pipeline, major Democratic donors sent a letter to President Obama equating the decision to President Lincoln’s efforts to end slavery, as reported by The Washington Post.

Carbon Levels. Levels of carbon dioxide have reached a critical level of 400 parts per million, levels not seen for millions of years.  Increased carbon dioxide leads to higher temperatures globally. Meanwhile, the GOP is facing internal struggles over climate change.  The conflict arises as many politicians are reticent to accept the scientific facts supporting human causes of climate change and religious groups are seeing the impact on the poor.

Climate and Insurers.  While Republicans war over the causes (and actions to take to respond to) climate change, insurance companies know climate change is occurring and expected to worsen over time.  Despite the acceptance of the science of climate and potential costs, insurers, who are typically aligned with Republicans, have been reluctant to engage in advocacy for action on climate.

Common Core. The Gates have given $150 million to promote the Common Core standards through donations to universities, nonprofits and states, among others. More information on specific grants is available on the Gates website.

High Tech and Immigration.  The high tech community has ramped up its lobbying on the immigration bills, advocating for more H-1B visas including supporting Senator Hatch’s (R-UT) amendment to loosen requirements to protect American workers (which was included in the Committee bill).   The community is also targeting Republican Senators who they believe can be convinced to support the Senate immigration bill.  The targets include Senators Ayotte (R-NH), Collins (R-ME), Moran (R-KS), Murkowski (R-AK), Paul (R-KY) and Portman (R-OH) to support the bill.

Costs of Coastlines.  Huge federal investments are made to protect and rebuild coastlines destroyed by storms or other natural occurrences.  The reoccurring costs to rebuild often falls on federal taxpayers, as the Army Corps of Engineers moves to stabilize areas that may no longer be viable (or perhaps never were).  The New York Times explores the costs of rebuilding coastline communities both in dollars and to the environment.
Visas and Countries.  Foreign governments are advocating for special treatment for visas as part of the immigration reform process. Countries like Ireland, South Korea and Poland have been especially active in their efforts.  What will remain in the final bill remains to be seen, but countries with applicants that have high tech skills are likely to fair well.

College Rates & Counseling.  In order to increase the rates of college attendance, a National Association for College Admission Counseling released study suggests increase counseling for all high school students, including freshmen.  The study concluded that there is a positive correlation between counselors’ time with families and preparation and students’ belief that families could afford college; enrollment in college; and taking an admission exam.

Loan Payment Options.  A recent report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on the affordability of student loans concludes that students need an option for refinancing and more flexible repayment plan options.

Labor & Community Colleges.  Community colleges are using grants from the Department of Labor to help students find jobs – by focusing on career services and creating training programs targeted toward specific industries among other basic services, as reported by Inside Higher Ed.

MOOCs.  As MOOCs appear to be growing, some universities and their faculty are changing their minds and ending their relationships.   According to Inside Higher Education, Duke University, Vanderbilt University, and the University of Rochester have all left 2U for various reasons.

Wild Horses. The National Academy of Sciences released a report highly critical of the Bureau of Land Management’s management of wild horses.  BLM’s management was found to be ineffective, counts of animals unreliable, and treatment cruel. The report calls for new methods on control the population, including fertility drugs.

Farm Programs & Water.  Conservation programs run by USDA are designed to help farmers to conserve natural resources in an economically-sound way.   The programs include funding and guidance for farmers who irrigate.  The subsidies have caused not led to water savings, but instead yielded the opposite result, causing farmers to use the water they conserve to irrigate more crops instead of reducing water consumption, as reported by The New York Times.

Rising Master’s.  Master’s degrees granted by American universities have risen sharply since 2000, by 63%, at a higher rate than bachelor’s degrees. Many of the new MS are being awarded by universities in the DC area reports The Washington Post.

Testing for Testing.  The number of tests K-12 students are taking continues to rise.  And, as testing increases, more questions are added to the tests as field questions to aid testing companies’ efforts for future tests. As The New York Times reports, the increase in testing is causing increased angst toward federal standards and the Common Core, which the federal ED has embraced.

Declining College Enrollment.  Despite the increases in MS degrees, overall enrollment in colleges continuing to decline, according to the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC).  Data released by NSC show enrollment has decreased in every sector by private four-year non-profit institutions, with the largest drop at four-year for-profits, followed by two-year publics. Overall, the decrease totaled 2.3 percent.

Humanities PhDs.  In an effort to help graduate students in the humanities with their careers, as well as future generations, Stanford University announced it would pay these students to pursue careers as high school teachers.

Math vs Reading.  In efforts to close the achievement gap, it turns out that it is much easier to close the gap in math than reading.  As reported in The New York Times, teachers are finding and tests are confirming that students are less successful in making gains in reading than in math. Reasons for the continued problems include the fact that students generally learn math at school while exposure to reading begins early at the home, where high-income families tend to stress reading more and provide more learning resources.


Upcoming Events (listed by date):



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