Public Policy

State of the Union: Big Issues Still on Congress Plate this Fall

By Russell T Harrison

Congress has been busy this year, trying to tackle a large number of very big, very difficult issues.

Education Policy:

Congress hasn’t done much about K-12 education over the past several years.  That is partly because the federal government’s role in K-12 is limited, and partly because there has been no consensus in Washington about how to improve things.  There is a broad consensus that the current system isn’t working, but no agreement on what should be done about it.

But this year, things are different.  No, Republicans and Democrats have not reached an agreement on how to regulate your local schools.  Rather, something has forced their hands.

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) dramatically expanded the federal government’s role in regulating primary and secondary schools.  Passed in 2001, the landmark law increased federal funding for public schools, but also increased federal oversight.  In exchange for cash, schools were subject to a host of new rules, many of which remain controversial.

NCLB expires later in 2013.  Congress needs to renew the bill before the end of the year.  And since they have to vote on the bill anyway, the NCLB reauthorization bill has become the tool Congress will use to vote on a host of reform measures.  The NCLB reauthorization bill is considered a “must pass” bill, because it is the source of most federal funds for schools.  No legislator wants to be responsible for depriving their local elementary schools of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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The reauthorization bill is called the Student Success Act, or H.R. 5.  It is a large (and growing) collection of education reform initiatives.  Since Congress has not acted on significant education reform legislators for several years, and may not again for several more, the Student Success Act is seen as a singular opportunity to change federal education law.

IEEE-USA’s involvement in H.R. 5 is limited.  We are supporting a number of programs to provide targeted funding to support STEM and engineering education, including funds for teacher training.

We have also endorsed the Educating Tomorrow’s Engineers Act (H.R. 2426).  This relatively small bill simply amends several other existing laws.  In each case, the existing law established a federal program to support science and math education.  The Educating Tomorrow’s Engineers Act expands these programs to include engineering.

Representatives Tonko, D-N.Y., and Kennedy, D-Mass., along with Senator Gillibrand, D-N.Y., introduced the bill and are now trying to add it as an Amendment to the Student Success Act.

Intellectual Property

Congressional leaders are organizing a push for comprehensive copyright reforms, and may even take a second swing at patent reform.  The historic America Invents Act (AIA) re-wrote much of American patent law just a few years ago.  This year’s initiative is focusing on what some people see as holes in the AIA.

The House Judiciary Committee will be holding a hearing on 25 July, to start the process of developing copyright reform legislation.  While it is hard to tell how important a given hearing will be beforehand, we expect to have a much better idea of how congressional leaders are approaching this problem, after the hearing is over.

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IEEE-USA continues to have concerns about the approach taken in the AIA.  To many engineers, Congress has tipped the scales of justice in favor of large corporations, and other interests with lots of lawyers.  Smaller inventors and companies may have more difficulty protecting their property rights in the environment Congress has created.

Appropriations

The 2013 federal budget ends on 1 October, but Congress has gotten out of the habit of passing their annual appropriations bills at all.  It has, therefore, surprised nobody that Congress is behind on efforts to pass the 2014 appropriations bills.  By mid-July, the House had passed three of the twelve appropriations bills, while the Senate hadn’t quite gotten to any of them yet.  Their efforts are actually better than last year.

Most people in Washington expect Congress to pass a couple of the appropriations bills, and then just pass an Omnibus bill combining all the others.  The advantage of an Omnibus bill is that it allows Congress to pass many department budgets all at once.  The down side is that, because the bill is huge, little attention can be paid to its contents.  Omnibus bills tend to include broad budget numbers that are relatively similar to the previous year’s budget.  Cuts tend to be across the board, rather than program specific.

That probably doesn’t bode well for science and engineering.  Support for these programs remains high in Congress.  While early drafts of the appropriations bills included some cuts to programs affecting IEEE member, these cuts were, overall, smaller than most parts of the budget.

It will be more difficult to protect specific budget items in an Omnibus bill, which is why IEEE-USA is reaching out to Congress now, while they still have time to discuss specific programs.

Immigration

After dominating the news during the first few months of 2013, immigration reform has receded from view in July.  Don’t be fooled.  It will almost certainly become a major issue in late 2013.

The Senate passed its Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill (S. 744) in June with a big, bipartisan majority.  Many people thought the size of this victory would propel the bill through the House, which would have to take up such a popular measure.

They were wrong.  For one thing, House Parliamentarians quickly noted that the Senate bill is unconstitutional.  Article 1, Section 7 of the Constitution clearly states that all bills that raise revenue must originate in the House.  S. 744 raises half a trillion in new fees, fines and taxes over ten years, but it originated in the Senate.  So, while the bill made a strong political point, it isn’t going to become law.

Meanwhile the House Judiciary Committee has passed a series of smaller bills, each focusing on a part of the immigration system, specifically: E-Verify, boarder security, agricultural visas and STEM visas.  None has been voted on in the full House.

Legislative leaders have a number of options for moving immigration along.  They could pass one or more of their smaller bills, and then the Senate could also act on them, one at a time.  Or the House could draft and pass a comprehensive bill incorporating the little bills.  Or an entirely new bill could be drafted.  After six months, we, and probably congressional leaders, don’t know what’s going to happen next.

A couple of things are clear.  First, the House isn’t going to take up immigration reform again until after their August recess.  Other priorities, and a desire to let the issue cool, have pushed immigration back on the calendar.

Second, if any immigration bill passes, high-skill visas will be part of the equation.  Legislators in both chambers, and in both Parties, agree on the need to expand and reform our high-skill visas system.  And while they may not agree on how to do that, there is enough of a consensus that the general outlines of a final bill can be seen.

For example, a high-skill immigration bill will include an expansion of the EB green card system, probably targeted at international STEM graduate students in the United States.  There are disagreements on how to accomplish this targeted expansion, but these issues are not as serious, or as politically-charged, as the disagreements on other issues.

Unfortunately, another area of consensus appears to be the need to expand the H-1B temporary visa program.  Again, both chambers and both Parties have endorsed similar H-1B expansions.   On the other hand, both chambers also recognize the need to reform the H-1B system to better protect American workers, although the Senate is far more interested than the House.


Russell T. Harrison is IEEE-USA’s senior legislative representative for grassroots affairs.

Guest Contributor

IEEE-USA is an organizational unit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE), created in 1973 to support the career and public policy interests of IEEE’s U.S. members. IEEE-USA is primarily supported by an annual assessment paid by U.S. IEEE Members.

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