Federal Policy Week, in honor of the Thanksgiving holiday and Congressional recess, will not publish next week, but return again on approximately December 8, 2013. Have a great holiday.
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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IN THIS ISSUE:
Congressional, Administration, Courts
CONGRESS: The Filibuster; Budget; Energy Bills; Competency-Based Education, Higher Ed Regulations Task Force; Energy Efficiency; Patent Bills; GAO on DC Charters; Congressional Hearings & Markups.
Administration & Independent Agencies: Nominations, Confirmations, & Departures; ED Regulations Panel; Teachers Wanted; Gainful Employment; Tech Training; Yucca.
COURTS: Nuclear Fees; For the Birds
Noteworthy News: Women & STEM; Performance-Based Education; MOOCs’ Users; College Ratings; College Credit; Farm Policy Critique; Keystone XL; Education Funds; Patents & Universities; Common Core Delays; MIT & edX; Evolution.
In the Know: A Preview of Upcoming Events in DC.
- The Filibuster. There have been several famous filibusters by Senators to block legislation and nominations. In wake of the high number of filibusters of judicial and executive branch nominees in the Obama Administration, the Senate Democrats just voted to eliminate the filibuster for Presidential nominations (except for the Supreme Court), so now only a simple majority of Senators (instead of 60) is necessary to confirm these nominees. This is a significant change on Senate practice (although some say it was the rise in the use of filibusters that was the real change) and may have unintended consequences including making typical bipartisan issues in the Senate could be collateral damage.
- Budget: The Budget Conference Committee continues to meet, but there are no signs of progress. Complicating comprise, Senate Minority Leader McConnell urged Republicans to not compromise on funding levels and keep the sequester cuts in tact. House Republican Appropriation Committee & subcommittee chairs sent a letter to the Budget conference Committee asking for top line numbers for the Appropriations Committees so they could move forward with the their work and afford unintended consequences. At the same time, a bipartisan group of Senators sent a letter to the Budge Conference urging them to provide strong funding for NIH.
- Pipelines, Fracking, Public Lands. Legislation passed the House could have broad impacts on energy projects and policies in the US, if they can succeed in the Senate. The first piece of legislation, the Natural Gas Permitting Reform Pipeline Act (HR 1900), would require the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to make a determination on international pipeline projects within one year. The second bill, Federal Lands Jobs and Energy Security Act (HR 1965) would allow increased drilling on federal lands. The third bill, Protecting States’ Rights to Promote American Energy Security Act (HR 2728) would prevent hydraulic fracking rules proposed by Interior. The bills face opposition for many environmental groups, House Democrats, the White House (SAPs on HR 1965, 1990, and 2728), and are likely to die in the Senate.
- Competency-Based Education. Senators Murphy (D-CT) and Schatz (D-HI) announced plans to introduce a bill to address the cost of college. Specifically, they support “competency based” education and credit for work prior to enrollment, consolidating of undergraduate and graduate programs, and a new approach to student aid that looks at the value and cost of education (they believe accessing federal financial aid is too easy leading to debt). ED has also recently warmed to the idea of competency-based education.
- Higher Ed Regulations. In response to the believe that government regulations are harming higher education, four Senators created a “Task Force on Government Regulation of Higher Education.” Senators Alexander (R-TN), who is the Ranking Member on the Senate HELP Committee, Senator Mikulski (D-MD), the Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senator Burr (R-NC), and Senator Bennett (D-CO), said the Task Force would “conduct a comprehensive review of federal regulations and reporting requirements affecting colleges and universities and make recommendations to reduce and streamline regulations, while protecting students, institutions and taxpayers.”
- Energy Efficiency. Representatives Welch (D-VT) and Gardner (R-CO) introduced legislation, The Utility Energy Service Contracts Improvement Act of 2013, to encourage energy efficient practices by the government. The bill is a companion bill introduced by Senators Schatz (D-HI), Alexander (R-TN), and Coats (R-IN). Specifically, the Act would enable federal agencies to sign long-term Utility Energy Service Contracts (UESC) with utilities. This also comes on the heels of a letter calling on Admin to continue energy efficient efforts by extending energy savings performance contracts and UESCs.
- Patent Bills – Déjà vu. Congress continues to mess with the nation’s patent laws. Senator Leahy (D-VT), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and co-author of the questionable America Invents Act, introduced the The Patent Transparency and Improvements Act of 2013, his version of the patent troll bill introduced by House Judiciary Chairman Goodlatte (R-VA). The current proposals have plenty of critics.
- GAO on Charters. The investigative arm of Congress, GAO, recently released a report on the DC Charter Program, finding the Trust implementing the program would release incomplete information, and often late, and lacked adequate infrastructure to properly monitor the program and schools and ensure accountability. ED has also failed to provide needed assistance. Previous reports found that many of the students were using public moneys to pay for tuition through vouchers at unaccredited “schools” that would not meet the minimum standards (the government program has no say on the schools curriculum or management) required of the program.
Notable Congressional Hearings & Mark Ups:
With Thanksgiving recess, few Committees scheduled hearings or mark ups.
House Natural Resources:
- Hearing on Legislation: Map It Once, Use It Many Times Act (HR 1604) and Federal Land Asset Inventory Reform Act of 2013 (HR 916), December 5, 2013
Administration & Independent Agencies:
- Nominations, Confirmations, and Departures:
- ED Regulations Panel. ED announced that it is taking names of people to serve on a negotiated rulemaking committee that will focus on financial student aid program and program integrity rules and regulations.
- Teachers Wanted. ED announced a new initiative, Teach, together with others including educational groups, Microsoft, and the Advertising Council, to recruit new teachers. This public service campaign will attempt to encourage college driven graduates to enter a career in teaching (which is complicated by the fact that few driven graduates will likely want to enter an environment plagued with excessive testing).
- Gainful Employment- The Saga Continues. ED has agreed to hold another session in December to discuss the proposed rules on “gainful employment.” The current proposed rules would have access to federal financial aid for-profit colleges, as well as vocational programs generally, subject to increased scrutiny, specifically focusing on the loan repayment rates and the student loan-debt burdens of their graduates.
- Interior Revenue. Interior announced that collected over $14 billion in revenue from energy activities on federal lands, including offshore. The funds, which increased by $2 billion over the previous year, were subsequently given for the implementation of projects, including federal, state and local conservation and recreation projects.
- Tech Training. In an effort to prepare students for work (potentially at the cost of long-term critically thinking skills and employment), ED announced $100 million for tech training. These vocational schools would prepare their students for narrow technical fields, typically with the needs of a specific company in mind. While vocational training may be the best route for some students who are not college bound, it is critical, in my opinion, that these programs provide their graduates with skills they can take to many jobs, not just those currently needed at a specific company. If not, they may have trouble getting their next job.
- Yucca. In response to a federal court decision, NRC is working again on reaching a decision on the Yucca Mountain repository site. Before a final decision can be rendered, NRC must have an environmental impact statement and safety evaluations completed. It may take a while still, as NRC claims insufficient funding.
- Nuclear Fees. In the absence of work on a long-term repository, the US Circuit Court of Appeals for DC ruled that DOE had to stop the collection of fees (intended for work on nuclear waste transfer from their sites) from owners of nuclear power plants. In order to collect fees again, DOE must begin work as required under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (i.e. at a permanent nuclear repository). As reported above, NRC is moving forward.
- For the Birds. In a settlement with DOJ, Duke Energy Renewables agreed to pay a fine of $1 million for violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, by causing the death of protected birds – from their wind project. The case highlights the concern many have that wind turbines needless kill migrating birds. While some bird deaths are inevitable, this ruling requires Duke to implement a plan to reduce deaths, which is a good and necessary start to making sure wind power and wildlife are compatible.
- Women & STEM. In many STEM fields, women are gaining ground and increasing their numbers. Specifically, in certain fields like social sciences and biosciences, women are the majority, but in other fields, notably computer science and trends showed minimal increases (engineering) or even decreases (CS) over the last 20 years.
- Performance-based Funding. Several states are trying to link funding for colleges to performance criteria. However, the latest study shows that this formula does not lead to increased rates of degree completion. In fact, these programs may have negative unintended consequences for colleges and their students (like falling completion rates).
- MOOCs – Who Do They Serve? Turns out most MOOCs actually reached highly-educated individuals. A new report from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that “the student population tends to be young, well educated, and employed, with a majority from developed countries… Students’ main reasons for taking a MOOC are advancing in their current job and satisfying curiosity. The individuals the MOOC revolution is supposed to help the most — those without access to higher education in developing countries — are underrepresented among the early adopters.”
- College Rating. The primary targets of ED’s new college rating system, colleges and universities, are beginning to raise concerns with the yet finalized plan (at least parts of it). Concerns with the quality and use of data ED has remain a major obstacle to support of the plan.
- College Credit. The on-going sequester apparently is negatively impacting research universities in many ways. Now, Moody’s stated that sequester impacts are “ negative development for the creditworthiness of those institutions.”
- Farm Policy –A Critique. An opinion piece by Nobel economist Stiglitz examines the ironies and perverse incentives of American agriculture policy, and specifically how the current farm bill proposals (esp. by the House) will exacerbate problems. He decries the cuts to food stamps while providing funding to farmers, including wealthy, corporate farmers.
- Keystone XL. When would Keystone be up and running if it was approved today? Not until 2016 at the earliest. In the interim, train transportation has become an alternative form of transportation for oil. The fight over Keystone XL will continue, especially on the heels of a report by the IEA finding that production from tar-sands would double in the next 20 years if Keystone were constructed.
- Federal Funds for K-12. After $5 billion of investment in our Nation’s schools, one would expect some noticeable improvement. Unfortunately, as shown in data released by the government, the results have been inconsistent at best. One-third of students in schools that received funding showed no improvement or even backsliding (and those numbers don’t reflect the missing data, including from schools shut down). What about the other two-thirds of the students who test scores improved at schools that received funding? Turns out “that progress was about the same made by students at all U.S. schools during the same period.”
- Patents. A new report claims that TLOs (patent offices) at most universities fail to recover enough revenue to cover the costs of their offices. The report advises universities to seek better agreements that provide increased revenues for universities.
- Common Sense Delays. More teachers, parents, and now states are questioning the effort to rush to implement the Common Core Standards. Several states, including Massachusetts, are now delaying implementation of the accompanying standards. (This does not necessarily mean they are abandoning the Core, just delaying implementation).
- MIT & edX. MIT, one of the co-founding universities of edX, is moving to adopt more edX courses into its standard curriculum, including it in its vision for the future (this is not a surprise since the current MIT President was instrumental in edX). Some are suggesting allowing (or requiring) current and future MIT students fully incorporate edX into their education by spending only two years on campus, spending a year doing classes online and another year in a job environment. As an MIT alumna (and proponent of study abroad), I would argue that the value of an MIT education comes from primarily being on campus and interacting with other students and professors directly.
- When We Stop Evolving. Once again, school textbooks are in the news. The Texas Board of Education is reviewing books that some deem inadequate because they present evolution as settled science. While it seems laughable, a victory for science deniers not only jeopardizes the education of students in Texas, but because of the size of the market, publishers want their books approved by its Board of Education.
IN THE KNOW: EVENTS TO CONSIDER
Upcoming Events (listed by date):
- AEI, Common Core Meets Education Reform, November 25, 2013
- CAP, EPA Administrator on US & China Clean Air and Climate Cooperation, December 2, 2013
- ITIF, Strengthening National Laboratory Commercialization, December 10, 2013
- ITIF, Role of Innovation & Technology in Driving Government Productivity, December 17, 2013