Legislative Update: Back to Work on Capitol Hill

Hundreds of thousands of federal employees returned to work last week after a furlough of more than a month. They should have received back pay by the end of the week, but many say they will be on a budget until at least February 15, when another government shutdown could occur.

While Washington, DC, enjoyed some sense of optimism last week related to resolution of the FY 2019 outstanding spending bills, by Friday it looked as though congressional negotiators might not produce a final bill that the president would sign. President Donald Trump characterizes the negotiations over the border wall as a “waste of time,” although Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D–CA) has indicated some willingness to support some type of physical barrier along the border, saying, "Is there a place where enhanced fencing, Normandy fencing, would work? Let them have that discussion. If the president wants to call that a wall, he can call it a wall." The tension fuels anticipation of the rescheduled State of the Union address that will be delivered on February 5.

Activities in the House and Senate
The release of the White House budget request for FY 2020 is probably weeks away, but congressional representatives show signs of laying groundwork for the future. The House Education and Labor Committee held its organizing executive session, approving rules for the year and creating a new Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Human Services. Chair Bobby Scott (D–VA) will host two hearings on labor issues this week, after postponing the one on the effect of the shutdown on students, workers, families, and communities. As expected, he and his Democratic colleagues also introduced the Rebuild America’s Schools Act. Scott repeatedly has said he intends to address the crisis of crumbling and aging schools, noting that it is often the most disadvantaged students and communities that are subject to subpar educational facilities.

In the Senate, hearings involving the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee have not yet been scheduled, but chair Lamar Alexander (R–TN) articulated his priorities for reauthorizing the Higher Education Act at an event hosted by the American Enterprise Institute on February 4. Alexander is eager to make progress on a bipartisan approach to reauthorizing this legislation and wishes to complete a rewrite by the end of the 116th Congress, when he will leave Capitol Hill. Although divided government can make legislative achievements more difficult in some areas, education legislation has a fairly solid record of making it to the finish line, giving each party something to celebrate.

The House Science, Space and Technology Committee will hold its business meeting on February 6. The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee will hold an organizing Executive Session on the same day.

CUR Activities
In recent weeks, there have been a number of letters sent to Congress by the DC education and research community. CUR signed onto letters asking Congress to end the shutdown and one organized by NDD United asking for action on the FY 2020 budget caps that could lower federal investments in research and education programs if Congress does not intervene. The statutorily-required spending caps that were lifted in FY 2018 and FY 2019 as part of a two-year deal will return unless legislation outlining an alternative spending plan is approved and signed into law. CUR will be joining the education and research community in calls for adequate investments in research agencies, education programs, the arts, and the humanities. It will also support the oversight efforts of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, as appropriate, as well as the spending subcommittees that are expected to call agency leaders to the Hill for more aggressive questioning than that experienced in previous years. CUR will be calling on lawmakers to include undergraduate research explicitly in that statute, as the practice meets multiple stated goals of the federal law that invests in students and institutions of higher education. In addition, CUR will continue to participate in the Steering Committee of the House STEM Education Caucus and investigate potential engagements with caucuses that have purview over issues intersecting with undergraduate research. With the departure of House Science Committee chair Lamar Smith (R–TX), the community anticipates a more receptive atmosphere for the social and behavioral sciences on Capitol Hill, but CUR and its allies will remain alert on that score.


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