One the one hand, every Member of Congress will be rushing to get things done before the election, either to have something to brag about to the voters, or to establish their legacy, should they not return.
On the other hand, in this particular Congress, bipartisanship is hard to find. The two Parties spend at least as much time trying to make the other Party look bad, as trying to make their own Party look good. With Congress split between the Parties (Democrats control the Senate, Republicans the House) little can be accomplished without the two sides working together. Since the two sides can’t work with each other, in most cases, progress on any significant matter will be difficult.
However, IEEE members and the IEEE-USA staff will continue to march into this less-than-auspicious environment. With big initiatives mostly off the table, IEEE-USA will be focusing its attention on smaller issues, where legislation seems likely to move. U.S. IEEE members appear to have a chance to make a difference on several of these niche issues in 2012.
The 2012 budgets season will likely bear a strong resemblance to the 2011 budget season, only nastier. Much of the political debate in 2011 involved ways to reduce the federal deficit. Since these discussions were mostly ineffective, they will have to be replayed in 2012.
R&D budgets were, for the most part, spared draconian cuts in the FY 2012 budgets. Federal support for basic research, in particular, enjoys support in Congress. Research budgets are also small, relative to the overall federal budget, which perversely provides some protection from legislators who want to trip hundreds of billions from the budget.
U.S. IEEE members did an excellent job in 2011 convincing Congress that basic research budgets are important. We need you to make a similar effort in 2012, as pressure to find additional cuts mounts.
Perhaps the most surprising area of progress in 2011 was on high-skill immigration reform. IEEE-USA initiated and led an initiative that succeeded in getting high-skill green card reform placed near the top of Congress’s agenda. Leaders in both chambers of Congress and in both Parties have expressed support for a bill that increases the number of green cards available to STEM graduate students. 2012 will be spent working out the details.
By expanding the number of green cards available, Congress will permit thousands of international students to avoid the H-1B visa after graduating, making the process fairer to both American and international students.
The plan is to create a number of new green cards for international students who earn Masters or Ph.Ds. in STEM fields from American universities. Exactly how many visas will be created remains to be decided, but it will likely be between 44,000 and 55,000. Legislators also have to agree to a number of other immigration provisions that will be attached to the bill. These extra provisions are politically necessary to get the bill through the Senate, where any one Senator can stop most legislation. Technical matters, like the exact definition of “STEM” (Does it include psychology? What about business statistics?) also need to be settled.
Even with strong bipartisan support, even these little details can easily derail the legislation. Still, we are far closer to making a positive change to America’s high-skill visa system than we have been for, at least, the past seven years.
Congress must reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in 2012. Most federal agencies must be reauthorized by Congress periodically. This process forces Congress to reevaluate the programs regularly, and to update them when necessary. The FAA’s authorization expired in mid-2011. Congress passed a short-term reauthorization to buy time, but plans are to act on a longer-term reauthorization early in 2012.
Among the issues to be discussed in conjunction with the FAA reauthorization is the state of America’s air-traffic control system, which is widely regarded as outdated. IEEE-USA is promoting an updated system called NextGen, to transform the entire air-traffic control system. It is a series of needed reforms that will utilize modern technologies to improve the entire air traffic control system, everything from improving communications to reducing weather-related travel delays.
For example, the NextGen system would transform our nation’s air traffic control system from a ground-based system to one based on satellites and GPS. The new system would be far better able to handle increases in air traffic, making the whole system more dependable, cheaper and safer.
The NextGen project has received broad support for many years. Other issues, especially labor rules for transportation workers, have complicated the reauthorization process. It is not clear that Congress will be able to overcome these obstacles in 2012, but House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., has made FAA reauthorization a high priority this year.
U.S. IEEE members and IEEE-USA staff will be working to educate members of Congress about the promise of NextGen, and about the urgent need for reform.
Intellectual Property / Internet
Congress passed the sweeping Patent Reform Act in September, 2011. And now U.S. IEEE members and IEEE-USA staff will be working with the U.S. Patent office to help implement the new law in regulations. IEEE-USA will also be providing IEEE members with periodic guidance on the implications of the new law.
Having rewritten patent law last year, Congress seems intent on drafting new rules regulating the Internet. What could go wrong? It is not yet clear if Congress knows how the Internet actually works. And as it turns out, Congress doesn’t seem to have to understand something to regulate it.
This philosophic statement brings us to the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA Act. This bill, and its Senate companion, the Protect IP Act (HR 3261 and S 968) would give the government more power to stop the sale of counterfeit goods and services over the Internet. The bills would allow the government or copyright holders to petition the courts to block websites that sell, or facilitate the sale of, products that infringe on a copyright. The government would have the authority to order Internet service providers, ad networks and payment processors to stop doing business with such sites.
The SOPA bill raises a number of issues, including First Amendment and due process constitutional concerns. But another issue was raised in a House Hearing in December by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-UT, who said:
“… basically, we are going to do surgery on the Internet, and we haven’t a doctor in the room to tell us how we are going to change these organs. We are basically going to reconfigure the Internet and how it is going to work, without bringing in the nerds, without bringing in the doctors.” (Markup of H.R. 3261, 15 December 2011)
Every year, Congress wades deeper and deeper into highly technical issues. Yet individual legislators lack more than a cursory understanding of those issues. It is essential, for our profession, our businesses and our country, that engineers and other professionals who do understand how the Internet, patent system, satellites, cell phones, and other modern wonders work speak up.
Your elected officials need to know who you are. Moreover, they need to know what you know about technology. Decisions our government makes regarding technology will play a large role in determining how technological innovation proceeds. U.S. IEEE members need to play a role in that process to ensure that it is done properly. Read the complete 2012 IEEE-USA Legislative Agenda, to find out all the details.
Russell T. Harrison is IEEE-USA’s senior legislative representative for grassroots affairs.