A Periodic Federal Science Update

Update on FY18 Continuing Resolution and Year Long Omnibus Appropriations – Reports are circulating that Congress is preparing to extend the current FY 2018 continuing resolution beyond its current deadline of December 8.  Members of Congress expect that at some point statutory spending levels for defense and non-defense discretionary spending will be amended.  One press report suggests Congressional leaders are looking at a two-year deal to raise the current defense and non-defense caps by a total of $182 billion.  Under one plan the defense caps would increase by $54 billion and non-defense caps would increase by $37 billion in both FY 2018 and FY 2019.  Agreeing to new spending levels for defense and non-defense spending will allow the appropriators to conference on the various pending appropriations bills for FY 2018.  Some staff members familiar with the appropriations process suggest that it would be possible to complete their negotiations and finalize the FY 2018 appropriations bills by the end of the calendar year if the adjustments in the spending caps were agreed to by Thanksgiving.

Administration Proposes Third Supplemental Emergency Appropriations Package for FY 2018 – This week the Administration sent to the Congress a third supplemental appropriation request in response to the damages caused by recent hurricanes and other severe weather conditions.  The total requested by the Administration is $44 billion for ongoing hurricane recovery efforts including:  $25.2 billion for FEMA’s disaster relief account and the Small Business Administration; $12 billion for flood risk mitigation projects administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development; $4.6 billion for repair or replacement of damaged federal property; $1.2 billion for an education recovery fund; and $1 billion for emergency agricultural assistance.  At the same time, the White House asked lawmakers to consider a lengthy list of offsets, noting in its letter outlining the spending request that the Administration believes it is prudent to offset new spending. The proposed offsets total $59 billion, most of which would come from extending the sequester of mandatory programs resulting from the 2011 Budget Control Act for an additional two years, through fiscal 2027.  The proposed offsets cover a wide range of programs, including $3.9 billion from student financial assistance; $1.4 billion from the Agriculture Department's farm security and rural investment program; $800 million from the special supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children; and $99 million for the State Department's democracy fund.

Tax Reform Legislation Moving in the House and Senate – This week the House took up HR 1, the Tax Cut and Job Act after it was reported out of the Ways and Means Committee last week.  The Senate Finance Committee unveiled its own version of this bill this week as it began the mark up process to produce a Senate bill.  There are a number of issues in these bills that are problematic for institutions of higher education and/or students.  For example, the House bill proposes to eliminate Section 117 (d) which allows colleges and universities to provide their employees and their spouses or dependents with tuition reductions for undergraduate education that are excluded from taxable income.  This section also allows colleges and universities to lower the cost of graduate education for their students who are serving as teaching or research assistants as part of their academic training without the tuition reductions being treated as taxable income.  The House bill also proposes to eliminate the allowance for employers to provide tuition reimbursement to employees, tax free which encourages the private sector’s investment in the advancement of its employees and encouraging partnerships with colleges and universities. 

The Senate bill, while not as problematic to the higher education community as the House bill, nevertheless contains a number of provisions that would negatively impact students and institutions by reducing charitable giving, creating an unprecedented tax on private colleges and universities, increasing costs and the regulatory burden on many colleges and universities, reducing the ability to access tax-exempt bonds for capital projects, and threatening state investment in higher education. The Association of Public & Land Grant Universities (APLU) has highlighted many of these issues in their analysis available here.  The Association of American Universities (AAU) has also identified shortcomings of the House and Senate proposals. The American Council on Education (ACE) also released a letter commenting on the Senate bill representing the interests of 46 different higher education associations.

On November 15, about 40 different scientific societies and associations co-signed a letter expressing concerns about the tax reform legislation.  The lettersigned by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Association of Marine Laboratories, the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, the American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union and others said, “…While the goal of the House tax reform plan is to help grow the U.S. economy, the language to repeal the student loan interest deduction, graduate student tuition waivers, the Hope Scholarship Credit, the Lifetime Learning Credit and educational assistance programs ultimately will have the opposite effect. By making advanced education less affordable, it is likely to drive some students away from seeking higher education. Because a majority of graduate students are in the key areas of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), these provisions will have an outsized impact in the sciences…”

Former NOAA Administrator and Recent Directors of the National Weather Service Endorse Barry Myers as Next NOAA Administrator – In letters recently sent to the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, former NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher, and former directors of the National Weather Service (Jack Hayes, David Johnson, Jack Kelly, and Joe Friday) announced their support for Barry Myers as the next NOAA Administrator.  In the letter from the weather service directors they said: “We have found [Myers] to be open to, and have a keen sense for, the great potential of science and technology to benefit and strengthen their impact on society”.  A copy of the Lautenbacher letter is available here and the weather service directors’ letter is here.

Sea Grant Reauthorization Bill Introduced in the House of Representatives -- Last week, Representatives Jared Huffman (D-CA) and Frank Lobiondo (R-NJ) introduced, HR 4306, a bipartisan Sea Grant Reauthorization Bill.  Following up on the introduction of this bill, on November 14, Rep. Huffman and Rep. Lobiondo began circulating a Dear Colleague Letter (DCL) to his colleagues inviting them to co-sponsor this legislation.  A copy of DCL is available here. The House bill is similar to the legislation passed in the Senate in September.  With respect to the Knauss placement issue, this bill calls for equitable distribution among Republicans and Democrats to the maximum extent possible.  The wording in the House bill on the placement of Knauss Marine Policy Fellowships in the Congress is an issue among some in the House and it will probably have to be re-worked if the bill is to have a chance of moving forward in the House.  In addition, the House bill does not have a Senate provision that establishes a Congressional notification process when new institutes or colleges are added to the Sea Grant program.  The House bill contains authorization levels identical to the Senate levels with authorized funding rising from $75.6 million in FY 2018 to $96.5 million by FY 2023.  Just as the Senate bill does, the House bill also contains an additional $6 million annual authorization for the same priority initiatives called out in the Senate bill including:  aquatic nonnative species; oyster disease and restoration; harmful algal bloom, aquaculture; coastal resilience; and fishery extension activities.

Michigan Tech’s Director of Great Lakes Research Testifies Before Congress – On November 16, Dr. Guy Meadows, Director of the Great Lakes Research Institute at Michigan Tech, appeared with the Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee to testify on Coast Guard readiness issues.  The hearing examined the Coast Guard’s role in preparation and response to recent natural disasters that have impacted the U.S. mainland and territories, as well as other challenges facing the Coast Guard including drug enforcement, icebreaking, navigation safety, oil spill response, and non-maritime emergency response.  Dr. Meadows focused on the important role played by science and technology in support of the Coast Guard’s critical missions.  More information on this hearing can be found here.