From the Hill


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From the Hill

Sequestration follies

In spite of substantial debate and controversy in the days leading up to the deadline, sequestration went into effect on March 1 as required by law. Cuts to defense and nondefense R&D will total an estimated $9.0 billion in the FY 2013 federal R&D budget. These cuts will be particularly harsh because they must be squeezed into the final seven months of the fiscal year.

Some agencies have already issued new memoranda on the impact of sequestration on agency operations. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), for example, stated that the “impact could include: not issuing continuation awards, or negotiating a reduction in the scope of…awards to meet the constraints imposed by sequestration. Additionally, plans for new grants or cooperative agreements may be rescoped, delayed, or canceled depending on the nature of the work and the availability of resources.” The National Science Foundation (NSF), meanwhile, has stated that although it will honor existing grants, “the total number of new research grants will be reduced by approximately 1,000.”

As widely expected, Congress failed to pass a more balanced alternative deficit reduction plan to replace the sequester. The House of Representatives, however, did pass an appropriations bill (H.R. 933) that would fund the federal government for the remainder of the 2013 fiscal year. The legislation, which passed 267-151, would fund both defense and nondefense R&D at FY 2012 levels, but because the sequester remains in effect, the net effect is a roughly 7.8% decrease for defense R&D and a 5% decrease for nondefense agency R&D. The House bill was written as an appropriations bill for the Departments of Defense (DOD) and of Veterans Affairs (VA), but as a continuing resolution (CR) for the remaining agencies. This allowed the House to provide some flexibility to DOD and VA on how each could allocate the sequester cuts.

On March 11, the Senate Appropriations Committee released its revised version of the House bill. Both Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Ranking Member Richard Shelby (R-AL) agreed to the legislation that would continue to fund the government for the remainder of the fiscal year. The revised “hybrid” bill does not eliminate the sequestration but does expand on the House version by including additional flexibility for the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, Agriculture, and Commerce, as well as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and NSF. The bill also includes a small increase ($71 million, pre-sequestration cut) for the National Institutes of Health. On March 20, the Senate voted 73-26 to pass its version of the Continuing Appropriations Act. The Act includes an amendment submitted by Senator Tom Coburn (ROK) that limits funding for political science research at the NSF; specifically, the agency will be able to fund political science research only if it is certified by the NSF director as “promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.” The next day, the House of Representatives voted 318-109 to approve the Senate’s changes.

Congress In Brief

On Jan. 28, a bipartisan group of eight senators released a set of principles for immigration reform at a press conference. The draft framework includes a proposal to “award a green card to immigrants who have received a PhD or master’s degree in science, technology, engineering, or math from an American university.” It further states that “It makes no sense to educate the world’s future innovators and entrepreneurs only to ultimately force them to leave our country at the moment they are most able to contribute to our economy.” In addition, it will establish an easier path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who came to the United States as minors—similar to the DREAM Act. This final point is expected to be a point of contention as the debate unfolds, especially as the draft principles still need to be crafted into legislation (more background found here). The bipartisan “Gang of Eight” who crafted the principles are Senators Charles Schumer (D-NY), John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Dick Durbin (DIL), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), and Jeff Flake (R-AZ). Obama subsequently lauded the Senate plan and released his own principles on immigration reform.

The Senate Budget Committee has established a website for citizen input called MyBudget, which provides Americans the opportunity to share their stories, identify their budget priorities, and provide ideas for how to achieve fiscal reform. Participating on the site may be of particular interest to those in the science and innovation community who have firsthand experience with federal R&D funding.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) has introduced S.21, the Cybersecurity and American Cyber Competitiveness Act of 2013. Sponsors of the bill hope “to secure the United States against cyber attack, to improve communication and collaboration between the private sector and federal government, to enhance American competitiveness and create jobs in the information technology industry, and to protect the identities and sensitive information of American citizens and businesses.” The bill also includes language that promotes R&D investments to expand the IT workforce and improve the U.S. economy.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee held a hearing on January 24 to assess the state of the U.S. mental health system. Six witnesses testified, including Tom Insel, head of the National Institute of Mental Health, who noted that about one in five Americans is affected by mental illness.

Congressional committee changes

The beginning of any new Congress can feel like a game of musical chairs, and the 113th is no exception. What follows are some notable shifts in committee and subcommittee chairs.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) will chair the Senate Appropriations Committee. Mikulski has been the longtime head of the Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations subcommittee, which funds a number of key federal research agencies—for example, the National Science Foundation. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) is the ranking member. On the House side, Hal Rogers (R-KY) returns to chair the House Appropriations Committee and Nita Lowey (D-NY) will serve as the new ranking member. The committee recently announced its majority and minority subcommittee leaders. Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA) takes over for former Rep. Denny Rehberg as chairman of the Labor-HHS Subcommitee, which funds the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) will chair the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. Smith is former head of the Judiciary Committee and was heavily involved in congressional patent reform efforts. Continuing on as ranking member will be Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX). New subcommittee chairs are listed here (majority) and here (minority). In the Senate, Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) returns to the helm of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, while John Thune (R-SD) takes over as ranking member. Rockefeller recently announced that he plans to retire in 2014.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) returns to his spot atop the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, while Lamar Alexander (R-TN) has signed on as ranking member. Like Rockefeller, Harkin has announced that this will be his last term in Congress. Harkin is widely known as a strong supporter of federal biomedical research.

In other news, some new caucuses have formed on Capitol Hill. On Dec. 7 Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL) announced the creation of the bipartisan House Science and National Labs Caucus. The caucus’s focus is to raise awareness about the role that federal labs play in long-term economic growth. Other co-chairs include Reps. Chaka Fattah (D-PA), Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM), and Alan Nunnelee (R-MS). A few days later, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Barbara Boxer (D-CA) announced that she would form a climate change caucus in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Boxer said of the new caucus, “it is going to work with all the committees and all the committee chairmen to make sure we can move forward legislation that reduces carbon pollution and also works on mitigation and all of the other elements… I think you are going to see a lot of bills on climate change.”

“From the Hill” is adapted from the newsletter Science and Technology in Congress, published by the Office of Government Relations of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (www.aaas.org) in Washington, DC.

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