July 15th, 2013, by Abby Benson  

Week in Review, or Going Nuclear

Members of Congress returned to DC last week from their 4th of July recess and began the mad rush to get things done before the August recess. Appropriations subcommittees in both chambers moved important FY 2014 spending bills for research and development (R&D). The House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) Subcommittee moved its bill which funds NSF, NASA, NOAA, and NIST, and the Senate Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee moved its bill which funds NIH. The full House also approved the FY 2014 Energy and Water spending bill, which funds basic and applied research at the DOE (more details below).

Although not related to DOE’s nuclear weapons responsibilities, Senators also edged closer to exercising the “nuclear option,” code for potential changes in the Senate rules that would make it easier to end filibusters on executive branch nominee with just 51 votes versus the 60 votes required now. Frustration has been building for years as it has become more frequent for White House nominees from both parties to languish in nowhere land between White House nomination and Senate confirmation due to partisan politics. Although the proposal being currently considered would only affect Senate confirmations, some worry that it could spell the beginning of the end of the filibuster, a powerful tool for minority parties to assert themselves in the Senate. Several media outlets have reported that Senate Democrats and Republicans will meet in a rare joint meeting tonight to consider this change. I will not pretend to understand the procedural intricacies of the filibuster–beyond Mr. Smith and pink sneakers in Texas–but you can learn more about its origins here.

The White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released its Mid-Session Review (MSR), a report which provides an update to the overall fiscal projections made in the President’s FY 2014 budget request submitted to Congress back in April. According to OMB’s blog, “The MSR shows that the projected deficit in 2013 has decreased by more than $200 billion as compared to the projection included in the Budget…representing the fastest period of deficit reduction since the years immediately following World War II.” CQ reports that the deficit drop is due increased dividends from the federal home mortgage entities, increased tax revenue, and the implementation of sequestration–across the board spending cuts required by The Budget Control Act. These findings were received cautiously by those aiming to demonstrate the negative impacts of sequester, and positively by those arguing that sequestration is meeting its intended purpose of deficit reduction.

In the former camp, the Pentagon reported to Congress this week that continued sequestration would have devastating effects on the military.  Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel responded to a request from the Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee via letter outlining how the DoD would handle implementing Budget Control Act mandated spending levels in FY 2014. The letter focuses primarily on military readiness and operational concerns, but also address modernization saying that “research funding represents more than 10% of the defense budget, and many research projects–including those performed by universities and small companies–would inevitably have to be scaled back…Marked cuts in investment funding, especially if they continue for several years, would slow future technology improvements and may erode the technological superiority enjoyed by U.S. forces.”

Also of Note

Appointments. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano announced that she will step down from her position in September to serve as President of the University of California system.

Newly elected Senator Ed Markey (D-MA), a 37-year Veteran of the House of Representatives and a strong supporter of R&D, will be sworn in this week. Senator Markey replaces former Senator John Kerry (D-MA), who left the Senate earlier this year to become Secretary of State.

Budget/Appropriations. The full House approved the FY 2014 Energy and Water spending bill with some minor adjustments to R&D programs. The bill would include $4.7 billion for the Office of Science,  $223 million below FY 2013 enacted level (pre-sequester) and $70 million for the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E), $20 million more than initially proposed thanks to a floor amendment.  These numbers are all significantly lower than the DOE amounts approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee two weeks ago.

The House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) Subcommittee approved its FY 2014 CJS spending bill. According to the committee release, the bill would provide $16.6 billion for NASA, almost $1 billion below the FY 2013 enacted level, bringing the agency back to 2007 levels; $784 million for NIST, $25 million below FY 2013 enacted;  $4.9 billion for NOAA, $89 million below FY 2013 enacted; and $7 billion for NSF, $259 million below FY 2013 enacted. More details will be available when the committee report is released.

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the FY 2014 Labor-HHS-Education spending bill, which provides funding for the NIH.  The bill provides $30.95 billion for the agency, an increase of about $2 billion over the post-sequestration FY 2013 enacted level. Although the House version of this bill has not yet been released, it is expected to cut up to 20% of the Senate bill funding.

As you are probably tired of hearing from us by now, the $91 billion gap between the House and Senate FY 2014  top-line numbers–with no obvious effort in place to come to come to agreement on a “grand deal” to replace sequestration–will most likely result in a continuing resolution come October 1st.

Energy. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz sent a letter to leaders of the House Science, Space, and Technology Environment Subcommittee informing them of his intention to create two new organizations within the DOE–a National Laboratory Policy Council and a Laboratory Operations Board–to advise him on the future direction and operations of the agency’s national labs. In the letter, Secretary Moniz also proposes merging the two DOE Under Secretaries at the agency (one for Energy, one for Science) into one Under Secretary, stating this move will help the Department to articulate a “comprehensive vision of its science and technology missions.” This letter comes just weeks after a House Science Committee hearing which explored DOE’s  national labs. You can read more about the Secretary’s proposal in Science here.

The DOE released a new report entitled U.S. Energy Sector Vulnerabilities to Climate Change and Extreme Weather, which examines current and potential future impacts of climate trends on the U.S. energy sector, including the effects of increased weather events such as Superstorm Sandy, and vulnerabilities due to the interconnectedness of the U.S. electric grid.

Immigration. House leaders met last week to discuss the path forward for immigration reform, after the Senate passed their immigration reform bill two weeks ago. While the Senate passed one comprehensive bill, the House has been moving forward under a piecemeal approach. It appears likely that the House won’t move on immigration reform until after the August recess.

Space. The House Science, Space, and Technology Space Subcommittee approved the NASA Authorization bill released by Republicans two weeks earlier. A day before the hearing, the Ranking Member of the Space Subcommittee, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) released an alternate version of the bill, a sign of the discord between the majority and minority on the subcommittee. The Democratic bill, which was rejected when offered as an amendment during the  markup, would provide $18.1 billion for NASA (compared to $16.9 billion in the Republican bill), focuses on a goal of a crewed mission to Mars, and aims to provide a balanced portfolio between “human exploration, human spaceflight, space and Earth science, aeronautics, and space technology.”

The House Science, Space, and Technology Environment Subcommittee also approved the Weather Forecasting Improvement Act of 2013 which, as reported previously, would prioritize NOAA funding for weather-related research.

Two associations that represent the nation’s large research universities–the Association of American Universities (AAU) and the Council on Government Relations (COGR)–submitted comments to the State Department on proposed rules that would ease export controls related to satellites and space science. Export controls are the means by which the U.S. government “controls exports of sensitive equipment, software and technology as a means to promote our national security interests and foreign policy objectives.” The proposed rules would ease restrictions on export controls which have limited both academic and commercial opportunities to partners internationally.

In Print

House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden penned dueling op-eds last week in The Hill outlining the pros and cons of NASA’s new proposed asteroid retrieval mission. Chairman Smith’s op-ed calls the proposed mission “uninspiring” while Administrator Bolden’s op-ed argues that the mission will help protect the planet from potentially dangerous asteroids.

Sam Stein reports in his Huffington Post piece, entitled Sequestration Cuts To Research ‘Like A Slowly Growing Cancer’, on a recent roundtable with senior university research officers who discussed the impacts of sequestration on the research enterprise. The roundtable was hosted by the AAU and the Science Coalition.

Harvard professor Robert Putnam writes in a Politico op-ed entitled Political science research offers better democracy about the value of federal support for political science research.

What’s on Deck

Tuesday (7/16)

Wednesday (7/17)

  • The House Appropriations Committee will hold a full committee markup of the FY 2014 Commerce-Justice-Science spending bill.
  • The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and transportation will hold a hearing on E-Rate 2.0: Connecting Every Child to the Transformative Power of Technology.
  • The The American Chemical Society, National Science Teachers Association, STEM Education Coalition, Battelle, Entertainment Industries Council, Hands on Science Partnership and American Society of Mechanical Engineers will hold a Capitol Hill briefing on What’s Happening in STEM:
    A Discussion with STEM Education Stakeholders. Contact dager (at) stemedcoalition.org for more information.

Thursday (7/18)

 

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