Hurry Up & Wait Congress

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, Courts

CONGRESS: Senate Appropriations; Student Loan Bills; ESEA; Immigration; Farm Bill; Nuclear Waste; NASA Reauthorization; Congressional Hearings.

ADMINISTRATION & INDEPENDENT AGENCIES:  Nominations & Confirmations; Ag & Environment; Climate Change Proposal; Keystone XL Pipeline; Duncan & Charters; Energy Funding; Chimpanzees, NSF Political Science Grants.

COURTS: Affirmative Action; Patents

Noteworthy News: Value of Education; Sequestration; Achievement Gap; Universities and Tax-Exempt Status; Student Aid Proposals; R&D 2014

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

Capitol News.  


Senate Appropriations.  The House and Senate continue their work on their respective appropriations bills.  Senate Subcommittee allocations were released by the Senate Committee.  House allocations, which include significantly less funding in many accounts, were previously released (see Federal Policy Week posting Education, Immigration, Farm Bill). While the House maintains the cuts in sequestration, the Senate tries to restore the funding in its allocations.  Some notable differences occur in the accounts that fund NSF, NIST and Commerce (CJS), DOE (Energy and Water), Interior (NEH and NEA) and LHHS (ED and NIH).

**To date, the House Committee has passed the following subcommittee bills: Ag, Defense, Energy (with major cuts in renewable programs), Homeland Security (full House), Veterans, and Transportation.  The Senate Committee has passed the following bills: Ag, Energy, Veterans, and Transportation.

Student Loan Bills.  In an effort to prevent the doubling of interest rates on student loans on July 1, the Chambers are moving with different bills – and running out of time for a timely solution.  A bipartisan group of Senators released a proposal (set to 10-year Treasury borrowing rate, plus – depending on loan), while a large number of Democrats introduced a separate proposal (a one-year extension).  The House previously passed a fix linked to the 10-year Treasury rate.  The Obama Administration supported a long-term proposal to link loan rates to market rates as well.  Congress has left town for the July 4 break without a deal on loan rates.  The Senate is scheduled to vote on the bill on July 10, 2013.

ESEA. The House and Senate Education Committees continue to work on their respective proposals on K-12 education bills.  The House Education Committee passed its bill, The Student Success Act, on a partisan vote.  Senate HELP passed its bill, Strengthening America’s School Act, on a partisan vote.

Immigration.  The Senate passed (68-32) a bipartisan comprehensive immigration bill, Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (S.744) that includes increased visas for highly-skilled workers.  Additional information, including a summary of the bill, provides more specific details on changes to the H-1B visa program. The Senate bill faces opposition in the House from conservative Republicans who oppose a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. The House Republicans have already announced their desire to craft their own, different bill, which they are advancing in a piece-meal fashion.

House Agenda.  When the Republicans return to the House after the July 4 recess, Majority Leader Cantor announced his intentions to work on their agenda – namely legislation on domestic energy (Keystone XL pipeline, coal production), ESEA (Student Success Act mentioned above), medical research focused on children, and government regulations and oversight.  Cantor alludes to revisiting the Farm Bill and immigration legislation, but no promises.

Farm Bill.  In a surprise, the House Farm Bill failed to garner enough votes on the House floor to pass.  The Senate has already passed its Farm Bill.  The unexpected failure to pass a bill came as a shock to Members, but has embolden conservatives who want to reduce funding, both for traditional programs and for food stamps (with changes that make it more difficult to received food stamps without proof of work).  Proposals to split the food stamp programs from the traditional farm programs also are being floated, with mixed reviews.

Nuclear Waste Bill. Senators Feinstein (D-CA), Alexander (R-TN), the Chair and Ranking Member of the Senate Appropriations Energy Subcommittee, and Senators Wyden (D-OR) and Murkowski (R-AK), the Chair and Ranking Member on the Senate Energy Committee, released a comprehensive bill on nuclear waste storage, a topic that remains controversial.  The Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2013 (S. 1240) creates an independent agency that, among other things, will create a “pilot spent fuel storage facility to store spent fuel from decommissioned nuclear power plants” and “build one or more consolidated storage facilities to store non-priority spent fuel for utilities or defense wastes for DOE on a temporary basis.” The bill also creates a “Working Capital Fund” at the Treasury, to collect fees from utilities.

NASA.  The House Science began efforts to reauthorize the NASA bill. It released a bill that it plans to mark-up on Wednesday.  The proposed legislation, drafted by the Republicans on the Committee, reduces authorization levels for the Science Directorate (summary details available here).  The bill provides support for the Human Spaceflight goal and kills two Obama Administration proposals, namely the new aspects of the Asteroid Initiative and the STEM-related reorganization efforts.

Notable Congressional Hearings (past & future):

Senate Energy:

Senate Appropriations:

House Education:

House Energy:

House Science:

House Natural Resources:

House Appropriations:

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 been confirmed to be Secretary of Commerce.
  • NRC Commissioner.  The Senate confirmed Macfarlane as Chairwoman for a five-year term on the Commission.

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.

Administration Climate Proposal. The Obama Administration released its long-awaited climate proposal.  The centerpiece of the proposal is a requirement to cut carbon at power plants, which also includes funding for advanced renewable energy technology and helping cities prepare for the impacts of climate changes. As expected, Republicans quickly criticize the Proposal, but see potential political gains in attacking the proposal.

Keystone XL Pipeline. At the same time President Obama announced is climate proposal, his comments on the Keystone XL pipeline have raised the hopes of environmentalists and proponents of the Pipeline.  The President said he would only approve the pipeline if it does not “significantly” worsen or exacerbate climate change, as reported by The New York Times.

Duncan and Charters. ED Secretary Duncan, a major proponent of charters, addressed the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools giving public charters mixed reviews.  He addressed the success of some charters in closing the achievement gaps and providing parent choice, but acknowledged the significant variation in charter success (and relatively poor performance in many areas).

Energy Funding. DOE announced new funding for advanced nuclear reactors as a means to reduce carbon emissions. The $3.5 B in funding, which comes on the heels of President Obama’s climate proposal to address climate change, goes toward a public-private partnership to develop new reactor designs.  At the same time, DOE announced a draft solicitation for a loan guarantee intended to reduce greenhouse gases and air pollution by funding for advanced fossil energy projects.

Chimpanzees.  Following the recommendations of the NIH Advisory Group, NIH announced it would take the next step to reducing, but not entirely ending, the use of chimps in federally funded research.  Unfortunately, NIH will keep 50 chimps for research purpose instead of retiring all chimps immediately.  At the same time, the US Fish & Wildlife Service proposed requiring permits for the use of chimps by public or private labs in research or testing by decaling all chimpanzees, including captive chimpanzees, endangered.

NSF Merit Funding.  NSF released instructions on how to interpret FY13 appropriations language limiting funding for political science grants. The merit review panels will continue as always but required to provide input on whether the grants are “promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States,” as required by the Fy13 Act. For more background on this issue, see Federal Policy Week posting A Very Bad Bill.


Affirmative Action. The Supreme Court took on affirmative action – sort of.  In Fisher v. University of Texas, et al., the Court sent the decision back to a lower federal court.  While not ending affirmation action, the Court did require that federal courts apply a “strict scrutiny” standard when evaluation admission programs – a difficult standard to meet.  The Supreme Court will once again address affirmative action and university admissions later this year when it reviews a Michigan voter ban on using race or gender for admissions

Patents. The Supreme Court recently held invalid patents for naturally occurring genes in Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics.  Specifically, it concluded “a naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated, but cDNA is patent eligible because it is not naturally occurring.”  The full ramifications (potentially less investment in university research by biotech) of the decision for the biotech industry and research universities remains to be seen, but the decision created confusion in the near term over what modifications to genes are sufficient for a patent to issue.  Emboldened by the “win” groups are attacking patents held by universities, including Wisconsin’s WARF’s patent on embryonic stem cells.


OECD – The Value of Education.  The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) issued its annual report on education reiterating others’ findings that individuals without an education (both HS and college) faced higher unemployment rates and that financial crises amplify the value of an education.  “Education at a Glance 2013” found that overall unemployment of less education people rose more sharply than those with an education.  The report also found value in vocational education for employment prospects. Despite the link, government funding for education overall has dropped in OECD countries.

Sequestration – What Came True.  When sequestration became law, many predictions were made about the consequences.  Some drastic consequences (remember the air traffic controllers fiasco was ended when Congress realized it impacted the Members) were averted, some are playing out.  The Washington Post has a summary of the impacts of sequestration to date.

Achievement Gap.  New data suggest that the achievement gap is narrowing.  The results of the 2012 National Assessment of Education Progress (NEAP) show progress among tested 9, 13, and 17-year olds public and private school students.  The greatest increases were for the 9 and 13–year-olds, with increases for the 17-year-olds in reading.  The latest result show the gap between white and black and Hispanic students narrowing, especially in reading.  Unfortunately, some of the gains can be attributed to parents holding back their children, so there is an increase in the age of tested children.

Universities and Tax-Exempt Status.  A case challenging Princeton Universities’ tax-exempt status for property taxes based on its patent royalties and building used for commercial purposes.  More challenges to universities, in a time when cities are trying to increase their revenue, are likely.

Student Aid Proposals and Student Impact.  The Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance released a report concluding that some proposals would harm students. Specifically, as The Chronicle of Higher Education reports, the Committee is critical of plans linking student aid to rates of completion and ideas to have block grants to states replace Pell Grants, and a budget-neutral student-aid system.

R&D.  The American Association for the Advancement of Science released the latest numbers for federal R&D.  The data are broken down by agency and discipline.


Upcoming Events (listed by date):


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