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: Budget Deals; Appropriators Request; HEA; House Science Bills; Patent Legislation; Coal Stop; Farm Bill; Immigration; Energy Efficiency; Fracking; RFS; Indirect Costs; House Schedule; Congressional Hearings & Markups.

ADMINISTRATION & INDEPENDENT AGENCIES: Nominations, Confirmations, & Departures; Student Loans, Coal, FutureGen, Affirmative Action, Climate Defenses, College Ratings; Public Lands.

COURTS: Yucca Mountain, Coal Ash

NOTEWORTHY NEWS: MOOCs, Nuclear’s Future, College Value, Common Core; Student Qualifications; College Counseling; Humanities; College Completion; Credit Hour; GOP on Climate;

IN THE KNOW: A Preview of Upcoming Events in DC.

Capitol News.


Budget Deals. The list of anticipated accomplishments of the budget conference committee keeps getting smaller.  No longer is anyone talking about a grand deal (see Federal Policy Week posting Water, Patents…) The best outcome one can expect is an overall funding number so appropriators can finish their work, and hopefully that amount will allow some relief from the sequester.  Advocacy groups from all sectors, including higher education, are hoping for additional funding to make up for the sequester cuts.

Appropriators Request:  The Budget Committee has a deadline of December 13 to reach a deal, but if they wait until then to provide appropriators the overall spending cap, that leaves little time for the appropriators to complete their work on the 12 spending bills by January 15 (especially with the Christmas and New Year break). Appropriations Committee House Chairman Rogers (R-KY) and Senator Chairwoman Mikulski (D-MD) sent a letter to the Budget Conference Chairs requesting that the Committee “decide on a common topline as quickly as possible” to provide the Appropriators sufficient time to work on their bills.  The Chairs specifically requested that the Budget Conference Committee provide them an overall number by December 2, but with a strong preference for a cap by November 22, so they can start resolving their differences on the spending bills before Thanksgiving break.

Higher Ed Act.  Some lawmakers are pushing for changes in the next version of the Higher Education Act (HEA) that include changes to accreditation and financial aid that include competency-based education, and provide a much larger role to the states.  This discussion came out in a recent Senate HELP Committee hearing on innovation (the second hearing in a series of planned hearings). While there appears to be some interest in allowing changes to current accreditation, the devil will be definitely be in the details.  Committee members also focused on college affordability and accessibility.

House Science Bills.  The reauthorization of the COMPETES Act is showing how differently House Republicans and Democrats view R&D funding and merit/peer review (see posting Moving Ahead).  One main issue under contention, and coming to light in their competing plans, is whether government funding should be limited to basic research or extend to applied research (like for APRA-E).  For energy in particular, the House Democrats comprehensive (i.e. covers NIST, NSF as well as DOE) proposal provides a large increase (33%) in funding for the Office of Science and continues funding APRA-E, while the House Republicans’ EINSTEIN America Act, appears to eliminate funding for ARPA-E and provides a much smaller increase for the Office of Science and Democrats have already raised concern. The House Republicans expect to make their bill reauthorizing COMPETES called The Frontier in Innovative Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act – available publicly soon.

Patent Legislation.  House Judiciary Committee held a hearing to discuss Chairman Goodlatte’s (R-VA) latest patent legislation, The Innovation Act (H.R.3309) ostensibly aimed at curbing “patent trolls.”  Unexpectedly, several witnesses (and Ranking Member Conyers (D-MI)) worried that the legislation needs more deliberate review.  Senator Hatch (R-UT) introduced similar legislation in the Senate, Patent Litigation and Integrity Act of 2013 (S.1612), as did Senator Cornyn (R-TX), Patent Abuse Reduction Act of 2013 (S.1013).

Coal Stop.  As expected, Members from coal states are interested in stopping EPA from requiring coal power plants to reduce emissions.  Senator Manchin (D-WV) and Congressman Whitfield (R-KY) want to make EPA seek Congressional approval before issuing the regulations.

Farm Bill.  The Conference has begun, and major issues remain to be resolved.  Here is a quick and simplified video looking at the issues the Farm Bill Conferees face.

Immigration. If you feel the goal posts keep moving on immigration reform, you are correct.  Since the Senate passed its bill, the focus has shifted to the House where House Judiciary Chairman is taking things slowly (and piecemeal).  Now, a major Republican immigration advocate, Senator Rubio (R-FL) appears to be embracing a slower, more piecemeal approach, and opposing a House-Senate Conference on the comprehensive Senate bill.  At the same time, a coalition has formed among business and conservative groups (including Chambers of Commerce agriculture groups) advocating for action on immigration soon.  And, Congressman Denham (R-CA), who hails from an agricultural district with a strong Hispanic population, is pushing ahead with efforts to lock in Republican votes to pass a bill this year.

Energy Efficiency. If the Senate can pass the languishing bi-partisan energy efficiency bills (see postings Water, Patents… and Moving Ahead), the House Energy Committee Chairman has promised to bring it the House Energy Committee.

Fracking. Senior Democratic Members of the House Energy Committee want the Administration (through EPA) to issue stringent fracking guidelines for extraction with diesel.

RFS.  The battle over the 2014 RFS wages on with lawmakers weighing in on what EPA should do.  Most recently, a bipartisan group of House lawmakers sent EPA a letter requesting that the 2014 target levels for ethanol be lowered.

Indirect Costs.  The Congressional auditors (AKA GAO) issued a report “NIH Should Assess the Impact of Growth in Indirect Costs and Its Mission,” concluding that indirect costs rose faster than direct costs.  Specifically, “reimbursements “for one part of indirect costs–the facilities component–help to support research innovation by providing funding for the development and maintenance of state-of-the-art research facilities.”

House Schedule: House Majority Leader Cantor released the House’s schedule for 2014.  While schedules change, with the upcoming election, most Members will want maximum time back in their districts.  So, if you want to see the House in action, don’t plan a visit for August or October 2014.

Notable Congressional Hearings & Mark Ups:

Senate Commerce:

Senate EPW:

Senate Energy:

Administration & Independent Agencies:

Nominations, Confirmations, and Departures:

Student Loans. ED issued final regulations for student loan programs making clear what payment qualifies as “reasonable and affordable” for borrowers trying to renegotiate their loans after defaulting.  At the same time, ED announced a major outreach effort – mailing borrowers who can enroll in income-based plans for repayment.

International War on Coal.  As the fight over the future of coal heats up, the Obama Administration is taking its agenda abroad. The US Department of Treasury will no longer support new coal-fired power plants overseas, an announcement that follows on the heels of similar announcements by many EU countries.

FutureGen.  The controversial carbon capture program, FutureGen, will continue.  After attempts to kill the project over the years, DOE announced that is recommends continuing the project, as part of its final Environmental Impact Statement.

Affirmative Action.  The Administration continues to provide guidance on how to interpret the Supreme Court decision in Fisher vs. University of Texas at Austin on college admissions and the consideration of race.  In the latest brief, the Administration contends that courts should still give colleges some deference to provide them the freedom to determine if they have enough diversity on campus when processing admissions.

Climate Defense.  In an effort to deal with the impacts of climate change, the Obama Administration issued an executive order requiring federal agencies to take into account climate-related issues when beginning new projects, and create a task force of state and local leaders to advise the federal government.

ED’s Rating Plans.  Secretary Duncan announced that ED would issue the controversial college rating system draft in spring 2014 and continues outreach efforts, the goal is to have the system ready for the 2014-15 school year.

Public Lands.  Interior Secretary Jewell announced that the Department is developing a long-term plan to allow development and the protection of public lands, including announcing that the President would invoke the Antiquities Act for declaring national monuments.


Yucca Mountain.  The Yucca saga continues. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled this summer that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission must continue its review of the Yucca Mountain repository.  The Appeals Court upheld the ruling, denying the State of Nevada’s request for a rehearing.

Coal Ash.  EPA must finalize a plan on coal ash, a toxic dust (then mixed with water to create a slurry) created when coal is burned to create steam for coal power plants, a court ruled.  The ruling also found that EPA must review the rules every three years.


MOOCS.  A new collaborative, “The History and Future of Higher Education,” which includes global partners, a MOOC, and webinars, attempts to change the face of higher education by creating an enormous amount of data and ideas on changing higher education through a MOOC.

Nuclear’s Future.  Without nuclear (safe) nuclear power, the world cannot fend off extreme climate change, according to lead climate scientists, including former NASA scientist James Hansen.

College Value.  Yet another report, “Smart Shoppers: The End of the ‘College for All’ Debate?,” found that college has value.  At the same time a new study took a more in depth look at economic outcomes, “The Economics of B.A. Ambivalence: The Case of California Higher Education,” finds the return on investment is positive, just not as much as other reports found.

Common Core.  A common theme in K-12 education discussions remains the Common Core.  Here are a few more articles discussing aspects of the Core.  First, how books are evaluated under the Common Core curriculum may give you pause: Recommendations are based on a formula that ignores book contents and themes and focuses on length of sentences, complexity of words, and total number of words.  So, for example under the system employed Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and the Twilight series are recommended for kids in fourth grade and Morrison’s Beloved is recommended for sixth graders.  For those who have not read these books, you should and you will quickly understand the problem.  For more on how math and English classes have changed under the Common Core, check out this chart.

Student Qualifications.  According to a new report, “Bridge That Gap: Analyzing the Student Skill Index,” most employers (61%) felt recent were not prepared for the jobs they were seeking.  And only 50% of the students themselves felt prepared.

College Counseling. Once again, a study has concluded that college counseling makes a difference for low-income students applying to colleges.  Absent counseling, most of the low-income, highly qualified students do not apply to competitive colleges.

Humanities Drying UpEnrollment in humanities courses is down, possibly due to students viewing these courses as less helpful for future careers.  Watching enrollment decline steadily, several elite schools, like Princeton, as specifically recruiting students with a strong interest in the humanities.

College Completion.  A major convention focusing on college completion showcased how groups, primarily funded by the Gates Foundation, are influencing higher-education policies is many states.  The groups are influencing changes to remedial education (not always for the best), curricula and pathways, and other aspects of education focused on college completion.

“Credit Hour.  ED is embracing alternate approaches to the traditional “credit-hour,” or hours spent in a class, for accreditation.  Specifically, ED allowing accreditation (and federal student loans) to go for colleges and programs that base credit on “competency-based” education in which you are judged /given credit based on evidence of learning.  This, together with the college rating system (timetable announcement discussed above) would tie federal student loan dollars to the performance by students, an approach advocated for by the Lumina Foundation.  While advocates say it can save students money, critics argue that the education is not equivalent to the traditional credit-based education.

GOP Climate.  According to the latest survey, most Americans (67%) believe the solid evidence backing the science of climate change.  The big exception lies with the Tea Party, where only 25% of Republicans who identify themselves as Tea Parties believe there is solid evidence.  The majority (61%) of non-Tea Party Republicans believes (like most Americans) that there is solid evidence of global warming.


Upcoming Events (listed by date):





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