Legislative Update: June 5, 2019

FY 2020 Spending
The 116th Congress is immersed in deciding funding levels for federal agencies and programs for the fiscal year that starts on October 1, 2019. So far, the Democratically-controlled House has developed a number of bills that embrace the programs important to undergraduate research and undergraduate researchers. The Republican-controlled Senate is moving at a slower pace and is not expected to unveil its ideas for funding until later in June. The whole process is taking place without overall agreement on the top-line funding numbers for the federal government. To settle that, House Democrats, Senate Republicans, and the White House will need to reach agreement on spending caps. They have been working on a two-year agreement, but progress has been stymied by the bickering that has taken place at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. The education and research communities remain optimistic that a deal is coming.

In the meantime, the bills approved by the House Appropriations Committee include significant increases for agencies important to CUR and its members. The FY 2020 Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations bill would increase funding for all of the agencies it covers. The bill provides $41.1 billion to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is $2 billion more than FY 2019 and a clear rejection of the president’s request to cut the agency’s funding by $6.9 billion. The bill would increase funding at the Department of Education by more than $4 billion. Regarding higher education programs, the bill does not eliminate Teacher Quality Partnerships (Title II of the Higher Education Act) as requested by the White House but rather increases it by $10 million to $53 million. Additional increases also have been made to the Pell Grant maximum award ($150 to $6,345), the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) program, and Federal Work Study. In addition, the Strengthening Institutions program (Title III, Part A of the Higher Education Act) for minority-serving institutions received a $251-million increase, including an additional $19 million for tribal colleges and universities (TCUs); a $375-million increase for historically black college and universities; and $150-million increase for Hispanic-serving institutions. Federal TRIO programs would receive $1.1 billion—an increase of $100 million. Although Democrats and Republicans have complimented various provisions of the bill, House Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Tom Cole (R–OK) warned at the subcommittee debate of the bill, “While I don’t doubt the value of many of the programs included in this bill, and I don’t disagree with generous funding for some of them, the current version of this bill is not realistic.” He argued that it would never pass the Senate, nor would the president sign it. According to Cole, the bill actually would increase the chance of a year-long continuing resolution or lead to another government shutdown this fall. The bill awaits action on the House floor.

The Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) bill has similarly good news. The House Appropriations Committee-approved CJS bill sends a number of messages to the White House and others. The bill proposes increases for the National Science Foundation (NSF, $561 million) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA, $815 million). It would fund National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) at $1.04 billion, including $154 million for the Manufacturing Extension Partnership program, which represents an increase of $14 million above fiscal year (FY) 2019. For core NIST research activities, $751 million also is included to help advance U.S. competitiveness, economic growth, and cybersecurity. At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the bill would invest $5.48 billion, $54.28 million more than FY 2019. In addition to increased funding, Democrats inserted language that reflects their belief in research across disciplines—including social and behavioral sciences—and in funding allocated to climate research to protect the country and the planet.

In addition to the good news of these two bills, the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities are slated to see increases ($12.5 million more for each) in the Department of the Interior spending bill.

The road to enactment for any of these bills will be long. With partisanship at an all-time high in Washington, DC, there will be many hard-fought compromises between now and the fall, when most of these bills have the chance of proceeding to the president’s desk. Although the House Democrats are enjoying the opportunity to tell Americans what they value in terms of federal investments, they will certainly be tempered by Republicans. When the final bills are signed into law, they will not have these same funding levels in them. Regardless, the education and research communities are celebrating these wins, no matter how temporary.

Higher Education Act Reauthorization
The Higher Education Act is due for updating. The House and Senate have held a number of hearings on the topic this year, with the audacious goal of transforming the country’s federal student aid system and addressing the astounding $1.4 trillion in outstanding federal student debt dominating the conversation. There have been conversations about the changing nature of postsecondary education as well. Competency-based education, micro-credentials, short-term programs, and Pell Grants to support those who pursue them; dual-enrollment programs; the role of accreditors and accreditation; accountability; and the appropriate penalties for dubious entities in the for-profit sector are among the thorny issues under discussion. Although undergraduate research is hardly a headline in the conversation, it fits into the underlying theme of ensuring that undergraduates graduate with skills needed by employers. It also connects to the issues of retention and persistence as well as the conversation concerning ways to encourage minority students to remain in undergraduate STEM programs. CUR has ongoing conversations with congressional staff about these issues.

The timing for action on the reauthorization is still in question. The House Education and Labor Committee is trying to balance educating new members on the issue with carrying out the plans of a new chair. There have been a number of issue-specific bills introduced, but neither the House nor the Senate have produced a comprehensive plan to reauthorize the law to date. Senator Lamar Alexander (R–TN), who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, is retiring at the end of the 116th Congress, and it is common knowledge that he would like to see a new law signed by the president before his departure. He and Senator Patty Murray (D–WA), who is the Ranking Member on HELP, have been working together on the issue since the start of the 116th Congress. Title IX and Title IV of the law seem to be the most problematic for negotiations. The former addresses the handling of sexual assault accusations (among other policies); the latter is a very complicated labyrinth of programs and policies that affect every campus nationwide. It is unclear if a comprehensive, bipartisan agreement will be forged in the Senate. Bipartisanship is a requirement for passing such a law. If passage does not occur by the end of this year, the issue could very well be waiting for the 117th Congress.


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