Washington Recap: Outcomes from the Lame-Duck Session

Washington Recap: Outcomes from the Lame-Duck Session

BY Chris Brantley Posted: 5 Feb 2015

The 113th Congress completed its post-election session on 16 December, bringing an end to a highly divided and partisan legislative year that saw passage of only 296 public laws. 

With Republicans looking forward to majority control of both houses of Congress in 2015, there was little incentive to tackle more than essential budget bills during the “lame duck” session.  

Among the high priority issues of concern to IEEE-USA left on the table were patent reform, immigration reform, and reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act.   However, there were several actions of significance to STEM professionals that emerged from, and after the “lame duck” session.

R&D in the FY2015 Budget Omnibus

The bulk of the “lame duck” session was devoted to passage of the FY 2015 Omnibus Appropriations Act (H.R. 83/Public Law 113-235) (aka the “Cromnibus”), which appropriated funding for most federal programs through the end of the 2015 fiscal year next September.

According to the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program, the bill allocates $137.6 billion to federal R&D accounts for 2015, a 1.7 percent increase over FY 2014 that keeps overall program funding  levels on par with inflation.

Department of Defense R&D would increase by 1.3 percent, with the Navy seeing growth and the Army taking cuts.  DoD’s funding for university-based research rebounded from deep cuts last year.  DARPA received a 3.4 percent increase to $2.3 billion, but saw reductions in their request for applied research.

The Department of Energy was allocated a 3.1 percent increase, driven largely by enhanced lab funding through the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).   DOE Energy Sciences funding was flat, with increases for nuclear physics and advanced computing offset by cuts to fusion, high energy physics and environmental research.  Funding for DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) was flat.

Medical-related R&D at the National Institutes of Health was basically flat except for the targeted areas of cancer, Alzheimer’s and Ebola-related research and the BRAIN Initiative, which saw increases in the 1-2% range.

Both the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Science Foundation fared better than expected, with increases of 2.1 percent and 2.4 percent respectively.   NASA will take cuts in funding for earth sciences and the James Webb Telescope.   NSF is expected to take significant cuts in social and geosciences research.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) saw an increase of approximately 1.3 percent, primarily for support of measurement activities at the NIST labs, offset in part by cuts to the agency’s public-private manufacturing innovation programs.

Federal Participation in STEM Conferences

In the wake of the General Services Administration’s 2012 conferences scandal, Congress continues to look for ways to limit federal expenditures on conferences and meetings, which has significantly affected participation by federal STEM professionals in science and engineering conferences hosted by IEEE and other organizations. 

The Omnibus Appropriations Act became a vehicle to carry new restrictions that were originally outlined in the Conference Accountability Act (S.1347) and the GSA Act of 2013 (H.R. 313), a set of companion bills that had been working their way through committees in the House and Senate.  

A number of provisions were inserted in the omnibus bill, which vary slightly by department or agency.  However, the general tenor of the provisions were the imposition of new reporting requirements to ensure oversight of conference expenditures by agency Inspector Generals and a prohibition on sending more than 50 federal  employees to a single conference occurring outside the United States.  The law enforcement community was able to obtain an exception for federal law enforcement personnel.  An effort by several science and engineering societies including IEEE-USA to obtain a similar exception for STEM-related conferences was unsuccessful.

Tax Credit Extensions

In addition to funding the federal government through Sept. 2015, Congress also passed legislation (H.R. 5771/Public Law 113-295) extending an estimated $41.6 billion in federal tax credits through the end of the FY 2014 tax year. 

Included in the list of extended credits were the expired tax credit for experimental research and development and  tax credits for energy efficiency and various alternative energy resources.

Several congressional leaders had hoped to extend the credits for at least two years; however a veto threat from the White House over the size of the package prompted this limited measure, which puts tax credits immediately back on the legislative agenda for the 114th Congress in 2015.

Cybersecurity

On its final day, Congress passed three cybersecurity measures, which were subsequently signed into law by President Obama. 

Two of the measures, the National Cybersecurity Protection Act of 2014 (S. 2519/Public Law 113-282) and the Federal Information Security Modernization Act of 2014 (S.2521/Public Law 113-283), were introduced by Senator Thomas Carper (DE).  The Cybersecurity Protection Act authorizes the establishment of a national cybersecurity and communications integration center in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to assist with cybersecurity and critical infrastructure protection. The Federal Information Security Act authorizes the Secretary of Homeland Security to administer the implementation of federal information security policies and practices across the federal government, under the oversight of the federal Office of Management and Budget and in consultation with NIST to insure consistency with NIST information security standards.

The third measure, the Cybersecurity Enhancement Act of 2014 (S. 1353/Public Law 113-274) was a bipartisan amalgam of two bills championed in the Senate by Senators Rockefeller (WV) and Thune (SD) and in the House by Science Committee Chair Lamar Smith and committee member Rep. Michael McCaul (TX).

The bill addresses cybersecurity research efforts conducted by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and calls for development of a national strategic plan for addressing cybersecurity R&D needs across the federal government.   NIST is charged to facilitate an industry-driven process for developing a set of voluntary cybersecurity standards for critical infrastructure that are non-regulatory, non-prescriptive and technology neutral.  There are also provisions to promote the cyber workforce and cyber education as well as increasing public awareness of cyber risks and cybersecurity.

The Cybersecurity Enhancement Act of 2014 represents the culmination of several years of effort by retiring Senator Jay Rockefeller to advance bipartisan cybersecurity legislation through Congress.

According to Rockefeller, “for years, I have said that cyber attacks pose one of the gravest threats to our national and economic security. Now, with the passage of the Commerce Committee’s cybersecurity legislation, protecting our information networks is a top priority for the federal government.”   He added “NIST and our research agencies will have a leading role in this effort, and the authority to work closely with the private sector to identify and reduce cyber risks.”

STEM-Related Immigration Measures

After more than a year, effort to craft comprehensive immigration reform legislation failed in Congress, which divided along party lines on issues such as enforcement, earned citizenship, and border security.  The failure to achieve consensus on comprehensive immigration reform effectively thwarted efforts to move reforms in several areas where there was broader bipartisan consensus, including IEEE-USA supported reforms to skilled (e.g. STEM) related immigration.

As a goad to Congress, at mid-year, President Obama announced that he would take executive action on immigration reform if Congress didn’t act.  After the November elections, Obama then announced a series of policy and enforcement directives, allegedly derived from his executive or delegated legislative authorities.  Of particular interest to STEM professionals are changes targeted at high-skilled immigrants and guest-workers: 

  • Modernizing Labor Certification: The Department of Labor (DOL) will review the PERM labor certification program that employers use to sponsor employees for green cards and related regulations and will act to streamline and modernize the program. 
  • Expanding On-The-Job Training for Foreign STEM Graduates: New rules would expand the eligibility of F-1 students in the United States to work for an employer post-graduation in a field directly related to their field of study from 12 to 29 months.
  • Employment Authorization for Certain H-4 Spouses: Spouses of H-1B non-immigrants in the process of seeking lawful permanent residence status will be allowed to work.
  • Guidance on “Specialized Knowledge” in L-1B Cases:  The Department of Homeland Security will update current regulations to provide a clearer definition of what constitutes the “specialized knowledge” required for an L-1B guestworker visa.
  • Modernizing the Employment-Based Immigrant Visa System to Make Optimal Use of Available Immigrant Visas
  • Enhance Employment Portability: A foreign national with a pending application for permanent resident status can change jobs or employers if the new employment is in the “same or similar” occupational classification. Regulators will review the definition of “same or similar” to ensure clarity and eliminate the potential for confusion that currently discourages many workers from changing employers or pursuing promotions.
  • Clarification of National Interest Waivers: DHS will conduct a rulemaking to clarify the standard by which National Interest Waivers are granted to persons of “exceptional ability (bypassing the requirement for labor market certification) with the goal of including  foreign inventors, researchers and founders of start-up enterprises who would benefit the United States economy.  
  • Parole Status for Foreign Entrepreneurs: DHS will propose a program to grant a protected status, on a case-by-case basis, to inventors, researchers and founders of start-up enterprises who may not yet qualify for a National Interest Waiver but who have access to U.S. investment and are planning to start innovative, job-creating businesses in the United States

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Chris Brantley is IEEE-USA's managing director.

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