With Congress nearing the mid-point of its 2015 session, committees in both the House and Senate are actively reporting out legislation in hopes of final action by year end. The leadership focus has been on moving targeted bills where Republicans could draw on bipartisan support from Democrats.
On 19 May, the House of Representatives passed by voice vote six bipartisan science and technology bills, which originated in the House Science, Space and Technology Committee:
- The Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2015 (H.R. 1561) calls on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to focus its research on severe weather forecasting capabilities designed to protect lives and property.
- The Research and Development Efficiency Act (H.R. 1119) calls for reviews of proposed Federal research regulations in order to identify unjustified burdens, eliminate unnecessary or duplicative requirements, and to recommend cost saving reforms.
- The International Science and Technology Cooperation Act of 2015 (H.R. 1156) calls for the establishment of a body under the National Science and Technology Council to identify and coordinate international science and technology cooperation opportunities across federal research agencies.
- The Science Prize Competitions Act (H.R. 1162) encourages federal science agencies to use private-public prize competitions to address significant health, environmental, and other issues.
- The Department of Energy Laboratory Modernization and Technology Transfer Act of 2015 (H.R. 1158) seeks to improve management of the National Laboratories, enhance technology commercialization, and facilitate public-private partnerships.
- The American Super Computing Leadership Act (H.R. 874) amends the Department of Energy High-End Computing Revitalization Act of 2004 to establish an exascale computing program and improve the high-end computing research and development program of the Department of Energy.
On 21 May, the House passed the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (SPACE) Act of 2015 (H.R. 2262) by a 284-133 margin. Crafted out of four related bills in the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, the SPACE Act would extend third-party launch indemnification through the end of 2023, allowing the federal government to cover excess third-party damages resulting from commercial launch accidents. In response to pressure from the commercial spaceflight industry, the bill would also extend a congressionally mandated “learning period” through 1 Oct. 2015, which restricts the Federal Aviation Administration’s ability to enact safety regulations under existing law for people flying on commercial spacecraft.
A similar measure (S. 1297) was reported by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on 20 May, which would direct NASA to continue space station operations until 2024, extend the regulatory moratorium on commercial space flight through 2020, and include other measures designed to encourage the growth of the U.S. commercial space sector.
On 20 May, the Senate Commerce Committee also favorably reported the STEM Education Act (H.R. 1020), a bill originating in the House Science Committee that would define STEM education to include computer science and support existing STEM education programs at the National Science Foundation.
The House Homeland Security Committee also marked up a series of bills on 20 May, including measures requiring the Department of Homeland Security to:
- review of university-based homeland security R&D centers (H.R. 2390)
- strengthen interoperable emergency communications capabilities. (H.R. 2206)
- assess threats posed by small- and medium-sized unmanned aerial systems (H.R. 1646)
- provide annual reports on the activities and accomplishments of DHS’s federally funded research and development centers (H.R. 1637)
- reduce duplication of information technology (H.R. 1626)
The House is expected to take up the 21st Century Cures Act (H.R. 6) in June. More than a year in the making, the Cures Act was reported in a 51 to 0 vote by the House Energy and Commerce Committee on 19 May, but still awaits clearance by the House Ways and Means Committee. The bill seeks to modernize the nation’s biomedical innovation infrastructure to hasten the pace of cures. It authorizes $10 billion in funding over five years to the National Institutes of Health, as well as $550 million in added funds for the Food and Drug Administration, to be paid for through Medicare reforms and sales from the Strategic Petroleum Reserves. The bill also expedites the process by which medications and medical devices are approved to get new treatments to patients faster, although bill critics argue the lower standards will heighten the risk of harm to patients using inadequately tested drugs and treatments.
In mid-May, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing to consider nearly two dozen energy infrastructure bills, including measures on the siting of interstate electric transmission facilities (S. 1017), to enhance the integration of “clean” distributed energy into the electric grid (S. 1201), to enhance and modernize the national electric grid (S. 1207, S. 1232, S. 1243), and to promote hybrid micro-grids for remote communities (S. 1227). The hearing was the second of four planned hearings to cover legislative proposals that the committee expects to assemble into a comprehensive energy bill.
In contrast to these largely bipartisan efforts, the House approved the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act (H.R. 1806) on a party-line vote on 20 May. In addition to authorizing federal civilian R&D funding levels constrained by federal budget sequester limits and considerably lower the President’s funding requests, the bill also targets even deeper cuts in spending related to the geo- and climate sciences, prompting a White House veto threat.
The Senate, under leadership of Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), has taken a more bipartisan approach to reauthorizing America COMPETES, starting with an energy measure that would fund the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E), and provide 4 percent annual increases over five years for DOE’s Office of Science, putting DOE back on the path toward doubling its spending on basic energy research. This measure may be wrapped into the Senate’s comprehensive energy bill.