From the Hill – Winter 2014
Congress passes budget deal, launches frenetic appropriations activity
After a contentious few months that saw a two-week government shutdown, a narrowly-averted debt crisis, and continuing politicking over the size and shape of federal expenditures and deficits, Congress has begun to tentatively dip its collective toe in the waters of compromise. The October 17 continuing resolution that ended the shutdown and ensured government would remain open through January 15, 2014, also established a conference committee to bridge the large gap between the House and Senate budgets. That committee, led by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Patty Murray (DWA), managed to find common ground and reach a limited deal on December 10. The House approved the deal by a 332-94 margin, and the Senate approved it with 64-36 vote.
For the science community, the key part of the deal is its provisions on discretionary spending. The Ryan/Murray deal would establish discretionary spending targets of $1.012 trillion in 2014 (a nominal increase of about 2.6% above 2013) and $1.14 trillion in 2015. For 2014, this would mean about a $45 billion increase above sequester-level spending, or a rollback of about half the cuts required under sequestration, split between defense and nondefense. The rollback for 2015 is a bit less ambitious: Discretionary spending would rise by only about $19 billion above sequester-level spending. This means about 75% of the spending reduction required under sequestration would remain in effect.
The deal addresses only overall spending targets, not the budgets of individual agencies, but according to recent AAAS estimates, it could serve to boost R&D by as much as $8 billion or more over the next two years above sequester levels. Although it is a welcome development that eases the strain of sequester on science and innovation budgets, the deal does not address the big issues such as taxes and entitlement reform that are driving the deficit debate, and it leaves in place most spending reductions under sequestration through 2021. If the sequestration budget limits remain in effect, it will likely mean tens of billions of dollars in lost R&D funding and the continued decline in federal R&D as a share of the economy.
The focus now shifts back to appropriators, who will have a limited time to complete the work on FY 2014 appropriations started months ago. No doubt, at least some science agencies will see a funding increase above sequester levels as a result of the deal, but the size, shape, and focus of appropriations is yet to be determined. It is possible that appropriators, by choice or necessity, will resort to passing another full-year continuing resolution like that passed for FY 2014. Such a step would finalize funding but would also somewhat hinder agencies’ ability to start new programs or make changes to existing ones.
The appropriators have only 4 weeks to work out the details. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Rep. Harold Rogers (R-KY), chair of the House Appropriations Committee, will lead the effort. The current deal certainly does not mean that pressure to trim many programs will ease. For example, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS), the second-ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, is contending with a primary challenge from Chris McDaniel, who is backed by the fiscally conservative Club for Growth.
House, Senate release COMPETES Act discussion drafts
The America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science Act, or the America COMPETES Act (P.L. 110-69), was first signed in 2007 by President George W. Bush. The legislation was intended “to invest in innovation through research and development, and to improve competitiveness of the United States.” The bill was reauthorized in 2010 (H.R. 5116) and is up for reauthorization again.
Currently, there are three drafts circulating Capitol Hill. The House Democrats released a draft America COMPETES Reauthorization Act in late October, with a revision in December. The House Republicans are considering two separate discussion drafts, which were both released in early November: The Enabling Innovation for Science, Technology, and Energy in America (EINSTEIN) Act, which addresses only the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and the Frontiers in Research, Science, and Technology (FIRST) Act, which deals with the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Office of Science & Technology Policy, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and science, technology, engineering, and math education. It is important to emphasize that these are discussion drafts only; they have not been formally introduced, and all are subject to change.
Although each of these bills aims to improve U.S. competitiveness and innovation, their content varies and it is difficult to draw comparisons. The House bills crafted by the Republicans of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee do not include funding levels for federal agencies, whereas the Democrats’ draft would authorize five-year funding increases (over sequestration levels), averaging nearly 5% per year, before adjusting for inflation.
The FIRST Act generated the most attention from the scientific community, eliciting concern about a few of the provisions included. For example, the bill would require NSF to produce written justification for accepted grant applications indicating how they satisfy one or more goals outlined in the draft (e.g., national defense), and the justification would have to be publicly available before the grant is awarded.
Furthermore, it would require that researchers certify the veracity of their research results if published and would ban primary investigators from receiving federal funding for 10 years if they are found guilty of misconduct.
The New Democrat Coalition, a group of moderate, pro-growth Democratic representatives, did not release a bill, but it has published a “reauthorization agenda” for America COMPETES that outlines principles for improving U.S. innovation. These include supporting basic research, providing a stable source of funding for R&D, supporting small businesses, and expanding public-private partnerships, among others.
Congress in brief
• On December 5, the House passed the Innovation Act (H.R. 3309) by an overwhelming vote of 325-91. Six higher education groups co-signed a statement articulating their opposition to portions of the House bill, expressing concern that changes to the litigant fee system could have a negative impact on researchers’ collaborative efforts.
• On November 18, the House passed the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (H.R. 2061) by a vote of 388-1. Earlier in November, the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee passed its version of the DATA Act (S. 994), which may now be sent to the Senate floor for a vote. Both bills seek to improve transparency of federal spending on contracts, loans, and grants by requiring the establishment of government-wide data standards and reporting requirements for data posted to USASpending.gov. However, the House bill, unlike the Senate bill, includes a provision that essentially codifies Office of Management and Budget (OMB) federal travel restrictions, with additional reporting requirements. As with the OMB rules, for example, it would reduce an agency’s total travel budget by 30% below its FY 2010 spending levels. However, unlike OMB, the House bill would also place a cap of 50 federal employees for a single international conference. In addition, it would require all federal employees participating in conferences to make public all conference materials associated with their attendance (e.g., slides, oral remarks, and video recordings).
• On November 21 Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA) introduced the America’s FOCUS Act, which would establish a new Treasury fund from corporate fines, penalties, and settlements. A third of the fund would go toward investments in science, technology, math, and engineering education and youth mentoring, and another third would go to the National Institutes of Health. The Justice Department has reportedly collected billions in corporate fines and settlements, and the money goes to the General Fund of the Treasury when not designated for a specific purpose. Says Fattah: “This bill presents an opportunity to intentionally direct sums from settlements between the federal government and corporate and financial institutions to programs that can improve the life chances of Americans and allow our country to maintain its economic competitiveness.”
• In November Congress sent a bill to the president that would lift a congressionally mandated $30-million cap on how much the National Institutes of Health could spend to retire and care for retired federal research chimpanzees. NIH will now be able to continue supporting chimps at Chimp Haven, the Louisiana-based federal chimp sanctuary, and move forward with its plan to retire all but 50 of its 360 research chimps.
• On October 29 the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee approved the Grant Reform and New Transparency (GRANT) Act (HR 3316), which seeks to enhance transparency in the federal grant process. AAAS and other scientific and university groups have expressed their misgivings about provisions in a previous version of the bill that would mandate the public disclosure of full grant applications and peer reviewers. In an interview with Science, sponsor Rep. James Lankford (R-OK) indicated he is open to making changes to the bill in response to the concerns of the research community.
• On December 5, the White House released a presidential memorandum that increases the amount of renewable energy that each federal agency is required to use. The memorandum states that “20 percent of the total amount of electric energy consumed by each agency…shall be renewable energy” by FY 2020. The memorandum also requires that federal agencies update their building performance and energy management practices in order to better manage energy consumption.
• The White House recently announced a new $100-million initiative to find a cure for HIV. The project will not require new funds; rather, the money will be re-directed from existing funds, such as expiring research grants.
• The Department of Homeland Security is inviting input into the development of the National Critical Infrastructure Security and Resilience Research and Development Plan. For the purpose of the plan, critical infrastructure includes both cyber and physical components, systems, and networks for the different sectors outlined in the presidential policy directive (PPD-21) on Critical Infrastructure Security and Resilience. That directive called for the development of this R&D plan by February 2015. The call for input includes specific questions pertaining to sector interdependencies; articulation with state, local, and other non-federal issues and responsibilities; prioritization of research areas; and essential elements for the plan.
• On November 21, the Obama Administration outlined its strategy for maintaining what it describes as the U.S. global leadership role in spaceflight and exploration in the new National Space Transportation Policy. The policy reinforces several previously stated administration priorities; however, it differs from prior versions by placing a strong emphasis on accelerating development of commercially built and operated rockets. In order to achieve this, the policy calls on federal agencies to continue supporting the development of private U.S. spaceships to transport astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit, and directs the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to continue working toward a heavy-lift rocket for further travel. Overall, the policy reflects congressional desire to boost commercial-space ventures and protect funding for longer-term, deep-space exploration plans.
• The Obama Administration issued a new rule on November 8 to require health insurers to handle copays, deductibles, and benefits for mental health conditions and substance abuse in the same way that they do physical ailments. The rule “breaks down barriers that stand in the way of treatment and recovery services for millions of Americans,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. “Building on these rules, the Affordable Care Act is expanding mental health and substance use disorder benefits and parity protections to 62 million Americans.” The long-awaited rule implements the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008. The Obama Administration emphasized that issuing the rule is part of its approach to reducing gun violence.
• The Environmental Protection Agency has released draft climate change adaptation implementation plans for each of its ten regions and seven national programs. Adaptation will involve anticipating and planning for changes in climate and incorporating considerations of climate change into many of the agency’s programs, policies, rules, and operations to ensure they are effective under changing climatic conditions. Public comments are due January 3, 2014.
• On November 1, President Barack Obama issued an executive order to help federal and state agencies prepare infrastructure to withstand extreme weather events caused by climate change. The order sets up a new interagency Council on Climate Preparedness and Resilience, which replaces the task force set up in 2009, and establishes a Climate Preparedness and Resilience Task Force comprised of federal, state, and local officials who will make recommendations to “remove barriers, create incentives, and otherwise modernize federal programs to encourage investments, practices, and partnerships that facilitate increased resilience to climate impacts, including those associated with extreme weather.”
• The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has announced two new actions to prevent shortages in drugs used to treat patients. The first is the development of a strategic plan that describes upcoming agency actions to improve responses to potential shortages and addresses manufacturing and quality issues that are often at the root of drug shortages. The second is a proposed rule, with a public comment period of 60 days, requiring manufacturers of medically important prescription drugs to notify the FDA of events likely to disrupt drug supply.
• On October 25, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) released a Biological Incident Response and Recovery Science and Technology Roadmap to help ensure that decisionmakers and first responders are equipped with the tools necessary to respond to and recover from a major biological incident. The Roadmap aims to strengthen the national response by categorizing key scientific gaps, identifying specific technological solutions, and prioritizing research activities to enable the government to make decisions more effectively. The Roadmap, which was developed by the interagency Biological Response and Recovery Science and Technology Working Group under the National Science and Technology Council’s Committee on Homeland and National Security, complements the National Biosurveillance Science and Technology Roadmap that was published in June 2013.