114th U.S. Congress: A Look at 2015

114th U.S. Congress: A Look at 2015

BY Russell Harrison Posted: 5 Feb 2015

The 114th U.S. Congress began on 3 January 2015 when the legislators elected on 4 November 2014 were sworn in.  The new Congress features 52 new Representatives, 12 new Senators, and the Republicans in charge of both Chambers, although without a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

Confronting these new legislators, and the 471 returning legislators, are a number of issues left over from 2014.  With the Iowa caucus less than a year away, and about a quarter of the Senate considering a Presidential run, legislators have a limited amount of time, some staff say at most six months, to get legislation passed this year before the Presidential Election diverts their attention. 

 

Budget

Congress’s first priority in 2015 will be completing the 2015 budget.  The 2015 fiscal year started in October of 2014, so they are a bit behind schedule on this.

In December, Congress passed most of the FY2015 budget, but decided not to pass the Department of Homeland Security’s portion of the budget, in reaction to President Obama’s immigration executive order in November.  The legislators have until the end of February to pass a funding measure and have President Obama sign it.  In the end they probably will, but not before using the opportunity to criticize the President’s policies on immigration reform.

And then Congress can start working on the FY2016 budget, which is due 1 October.  This budget will include roughly $200 billion in funding that affects IEEE members uniquely -- everything from student fellowships to NASA.  As the federal discretionary budget gets squeezed tighter and tighter every year, protecting these funds will be increasingly difficult. President Obama released his budget proposal on 3 February, ahead of schedule, but there is little chance that most of his proposals will be seriously considered, let alone passed. 

 

Energy

Energy reform is expected to be an issue that gets early consideration in the 114th Congress.

In fact, the Keystone Pipeline bill was one of the first bills brought up for a vote in 2014.  Both the House and Senate passed legislation in January authorizing the construction of the pipeline.  The two bills still need to be reconciled, but that should happen in early February.  President Obama has promised to veto this legislation, setting up what will probably be his first use of the veto of his Presidency.

With respect to the Executive Branch, the Obama Administration is expected to release its Quadrennial Energy Review (QER) report in early February. The QER will focus on transmission, storage and distribution infrastructure (TS&D). The review was requested last year by President Obama to outline Federal energy policy objectives and identify opportunities for U.S. energy.  IEEE-USA has provided comments and analysis for that report.

 

Patent Legislation

In 2012, passage of the America Invents Act (AIA) caused the most significant changes to the U.S. patent system in history. The law moved the United States to a first-to-file patent system, where a patent is awarded to the first inventor to file an application -- a paradigm shift from a first-to-invent system, where the first person to actually invent the idea. The law also provided new ways to challenge the validity of a patent through trial at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO); in other words, companies accused of infringement could ask the USPTO to invalidate patents used in litigation. The agency reviews are much cheaper and faster than going to court. These changes were not enough for some.

In 2014, additional patent legislation was introduced to combat patent litigation by non-practicing entities (NPEs), what some pejoratively call “patent trolls.” NPEs are entities which do not manufacture products or supply services, but who own intellectual property on ideas that other entities want to use.  When these patent holders initiate legal action to protect their ideas, they are patent trolls. 

One problem with this definition is that there is little agreement about what a "troll" is. In her confirmation hearing in December 2014, USPTO director-nominee Michelle Lee declined to define troll when specifically asked to do so. While some entities may be abusing the system, others are just acting to protect their ideas.  The pejorative term casts a too-large fishing net, often catching small businesses and inventors who may struggle to manufacture and take their ideas to market.  And attempting to legislate against inventors who license their technology would make patent licensing more difficult, and would make it prohibitively expensive to hold infringers accountable when a patented invention is used without permission. This favors larger corporations with deep pockets and lawyers who may attempt to intimidate small players.

The 2014 legislation was popular in the House but failed to pass the Senate because of the difficulty in defining “troll,” and a wariness of causing a negative lasting impact on small entities struggling to protect and market their ideas.

However, we expect to see the legislation reintroduced into both the House and Senate in 2015. And if John Cornyn (R-Texas), new majority whip, continues his support of the 2014 legislation, lawmakers are “absolutely” going to pass a bill that will look exactly like, or very similar to that introduced in 2014. The White House has expressed support for efforts to amend patent law, and President Obama will likely sign whatever comes out of Congress.

 

Immigration Reform

After failing to pass comprehensive immigration reform in the last Congress, legislators are considering tackling the subject again in early 2015, although probably not comprehensively.  Legislation to repeal President Obama’s November executive orders has already passed the House, and boarder security legislation is being drafted in both the House and Senate.

High-skill immigration will be less of a priority, but is still on the agenda for 2015. 

Republican leaders in the House and Senate have already expressed their support for a massive H-1B expansion bill.  Sen. Orin Hatch (R-Utah), reintroduced his Innovation Immigration Act (I-Squared Bill).  This bill had been previously introduced in 2013 and would expand the H-1B cap to approximately 300,000 annually, with no protections for foreign or American workers.  The bill would also create a significant number of new green cards, but the good done by these new green cards is dwarfed by the damage done by the H-1Bs. The I2 bill has been cosponsored by Senators Flake (R-Ariz.), Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Coons (D-Del.), Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Rubio (R-Fla.) and Heller (R-Nev.).

The Bill’s prospects are unclear at this point.  President Obama’s executive order complicates any immigration reform legislation.  Many Republicans, including many freshmen, want to roll-back the President’s plans before passing any other immigration legislation.  Bills to strengthen boarder security will also be given high priority by the Republicans.  But in each case, the legislation will be highly controversial and partisan, meaning it will take time to deal with them.  This suggests that any high-skills legislation may not be taken up until later this spring or summer. 

The H-1B is of particular concern to IEEE members because more than half of the visas are used by outsourcing companies to replace American workers with lower-cost foreign workers – most of whom will never be allowed to become Americans.  IEEE-USA supports efforts to expand the number of green cards for skilled foreign workers, making it easier for skilled international students to become American citizens.  Our proposals also have significant support in Congress, but it is unclear if they have enough support to overcome the H-1B proposals backed by technology companies. 

 

Net Neutrality

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is getting ready to announce new rules on net neutrality – rules that will be opposed by Republicans in Congress.  Several legislators have already announced that they will be drafting legislation to undo the new rules, but it is far from clear that there is enough support for these bills to pass.

 

On all of these issues, Congress needs to hear from constituents, especially IEEE members.  Each issue will uniquely impact engineers and other technical professionals.  It is important that legislators understand your concerns and opinions now, before legislation is passed. IEEE-USA encourages all IEEE members to e-mail (or call, or visit) their members of Congress at least once per year to express their opinions.  Such communications are extremely powerful in Washington, and play a crucial role in the legislative process.

U.S. IEEE members are encouraged to join us in Washington 17-18 March for our annual Congressional Visits Day (CVD). Read more about it here.

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Russell Harrison is IEEE-USA director of government relations.

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