DC Digest - 111th Congress Wrapup
The following is a review of major legislative actions of concern to higher education that took place during the last three months of 111th Congress. For more details or background on these issues, please refer to archived DC Digests or contact the Office of Federal Relations.
- FY11 Appropriations
- America COMPETES Act
- SBIR and STTR
- DREAM Act
- Tax Extenders Package
- NASA Authorization
- Senate Confirms NSF Director
- Small Business Jobs Act, Including Cell Phone Provision
- Patent Reform
The 111th Congress was under continuous pressure to reduce federal spending and budget deficits rather than support new spending initiatives. In this context, Congress was unable to pass an FY11 omnibus appropriations package and instead had to settle for a short-term continuing resolution (CR) that freezes most federal discretionary spending at FY10 levels. The CR is set to expire March 4, giving the 112th Congress the chance to weigh in on FY11 funding levels and program priorities. Given the fiscally conservative nature of the new Congress and House Republican leaders’ explicit support for returning discretionary spending to FY08 levels, this could mean efforts to seek rescissions, other targeted cuts, and/or across-the-board funding reductions for the remainder of the fiscal year.
The short-term CR will maintain Pell Grant funding at the FY10 levels, so that the maximum award does not drop in the 2011-2012 academic year. In addition, the CR eliminates the shortfall in the program.
AMERICA COMPETES ACT
With the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science (COMPETES) Act of 2007 set to expire at the end of 2010, the 111th Congress worked to reauthorize the measure by the close of the year. The Senate passed the bill on December 17 by unanimous consent, and the House on December 21 voted final approval of the America COMPETES Act (H.R. 5116), sending the measure to the President for signature.
The final legislation is a slimmed-down version of the bill passed by the House in May, authorizing $45.2 billion for several science, technology, and education agencies and programs over three years, rather than the $85.6 billion over five years in the earlier House-approved bill. The bill reaffirms the 10-year budget doubling track of the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and includes specific authorization for the DOE Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).
H.R. 5116 would provide the following funding authorization levels for FY11 through FY13:
NSF: the President’s budget request numbers for three years, beginning at $7.4 billion (FY11 funding under the current CR is $6.9 billion);
NIST: the President’s budget numbers for three years, beginning at $585 million (FY11 funding under the current CR is $515 million; DOE
Office of Science: beginning at $5.2 billion, rising to $5.6 billion and $6 billion in the out years (FY11 funding under the current CR is $4.9 billion);
ARPA-E: $300 million, and adjusted for inflation for years two and three (The agency receives no funding in the current CR.)
SBIR AND STTR
During the last week of the lame-duck session, Congress did not give final approval to a bill reauthorizing the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and the Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs. Several higher education associations and institutions, including Duke, support reauthorization of these small business programs with set-asides, but oppose increasing the set-asides in federal agency research budgets.
As described in AAU President Robert Berdahl’s testimony before the Subcommittee on Innovation and Technology of the House Science Committee:
“While supportive of the current set-aside, we oppose any increases in the SBIR set-aside because there is no clear justification for such increases. We question whether there is enough small business research—and of sufficient quality—to merit SBIR funding that would come at the expense of peer-reviewed basic and applied research programs at agencies such as NIH and NSF, where success rates unfortunately have hit all-time lows in recent years. In our view, increasing the set-aside would reduce even further the number of successful research grants that are awarded by federal research agencies. This is not to suggest that we do not favor increasing the amount of funds going to SBIR and STTR. Our view is that the best way to increase the amount of funding available to these programs is to provide steady and sustained funding increases for federally supported research…"
The Senate approved the SBIR/STTR Reauthorization Act of 2010 (S. 4053) by unanimous consent on December 22, but the House did not consider the measure before adjournment.
Despite what appeared to be signs of progress on the measure, the 111th Congress failed to pass the latest version of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act during the lame-duck session. Although the House approved the bill on December 6 by a vote of 216-198, the Senate on December 18 was unable to garner the 60 votes needed to prevent a filibuster.
The DREAM Act would would provide a legal pathway for young adults brought to the United States as children who have completed two years of either college or military service. Though Senate Democrats in the current Congress say they will make immigration reform a priority, freshman GOP members of the House oppose the idea, setting the stage for more debate in the 112th.
TAX EXTENDERS PACKAGE
House and Senate Democratic leaders spent much of 2010 working to reach final agreement on a massive bill to extend a variety of expired and soon-to-expire tax benefits and social safety net programs. On December 16, the House approved the Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization and Job Creation Act of 2010 (H.R. 4853) on a vote of 277 to 148, sending the measure to the President for signature. The Senate approved the package December 15 on a vote of 81 to 19.
Along with extension of financial and health insurance benefits for the unemployed, the Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization and Job Creation Act of 2010 (H.R. 4853) would extend for two years several tax provisions of concern to higher education. The proposal would extend the American Opportunity Tax Credit, the student loan interest deduction, Section 127 employer-provided educational assistance, and Coverdell education savings accounts. It also would restore three tax benefits that expired at the end of 2009: the above-the-line deduction for qualified educational expenses, the IRA charitable rollover, and the R&D tax credit.
President Obama on October 11 signed into law the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 (S. 3729), which authorizes $58 billion for the space agency in fiscal years 2011-2013.
The new law paves the way for development of a new heavy-lift launch vehicle, adds one extra shuttle flight, provides support for the International Space Station until 2020, and authorizes federal funding for development of commercial spacecraft. The law also authorizes sustained funding for Earth and space science programs, as well as robust support for aeronautics and space technology development.
The House of Representatives on September 29 approved the Senate-passed version of the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 (S. 3729), sending the bill to the President for signature. The House vote, which was 304 to 118, came after weeks of negotiations between the two chambers over a final bill. House leaders finally opted to vote on the Senate bill. Among other elements, S. 3729 authorizes $58 billion in federal funding for the space agency for fiscal years 2011-2013. The bill also underscores the importance of Earth science and observation missions, support for space science research, and robust support for aeronautics and space technology development.
SENATE CONFIRMS NSF DIRECTOR
The Senate on September 29 confirmed Subra Suresh as director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a six-year term. Dr. Suresh, who is a former dean of engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was nominated by the President in June. Suresh replaces Arden L. Bement, Jr., who led the agency from 2004 until he resigned in May of this year.
SMALL BUSINESS JOBS ACT, INCLUDING CELL PHONE PROVISION
On a 61-38 vote, the Senate on September 16 approved the Small Business Jobs Act (HR 5297), which includes the cell phone provision supported by many universities. The House is expected to accept the Senate bill next week and send it to the President for his signature.
According to the Senate summary, the cell phone provision, which is estimated to cost $410 million over 10 years, “would ‘delist’ cell phones so their cost can be deducted or depreciated like other business property, without onerous recordkeeping requirements.” Or, as CTIA-The Wireless Association put it, approval of the cell phone provision “means individuals who have a business-provided mobile device are no longer required to record: (1) the amount of such expense or other items; (2) the time and place of the use of the property; (3) the business purpose of the expense; and (4) the business relationship to the taxpayer of the persons using the property.”
Elected officials made little progress on patent reform in the final months of the 111th Congress. Details of the latest version of the Patent Reform Act were released in March, and in September, a bipartisan group of twenty-five Senators sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid urging him to schedule floor time to consider the bipartisan Patent Reform Act.
"A well functioning and efficient patent system is critical to American invention and innovation, which are the cornerstones of our economy and job creation...The bipartisan Manager's Amendment to S. 515 released by the Judiciary Committee would speed the patent application process, reducing the three-year wait that inventors must endure before obtaining their patents and securing the funding needed to place new products on the market."
Despite the such urging, the Senate did not consider the bill during the lame-duck session, pushing consideration of the patent reform issue to the 112th Congress.