After returning from summer recess, the House in September approved an Omnibus Appropriations Act comprised of several appropriations bills, including the Commerce-Justice-Science and Labor-Health and Human Services-Education Appropriations Act. The Senate approved the fiscal year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act. Both chambers also cleared disaster assistance packages to aid in the recovery from several hurricanes. The House and Senate also cleared the Continuing Appropriations Act to fund government operations at fiscal year 2017 levels through December 8.
Déjà vu All Over Again: Senate Tries Again, and Fails, on ACA Repeal and Reform
After the dramatic early morning vote on July 28 that defeated the Better Care Reconciliation Act — which hinged on one vote in the Senate – many health policy insiders believed that efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA) were dead for the year.
However, as we learned in September, ACA repeal will not go away.
In an effort to revive a potential legislative victory on health care prior to reconciliation authority expiring on September 30, Senators Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, and Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana, proposed a plan that was very similar to the bill voted down last July, but with several minor tweaks. What did NOT change was the impact of the bill on those with chronic and “pre-existing” health conditions. Independent analyses of the Graham-Cassidy bill determined that it would have resulted in loss of insurance coverage for millions of Americans, and raised insurance costs for many more. Not surprisingly, grassroots advocacy organizations mobilized aggressively to defeat the bill, activating cancer and rare disease patients to contact their Senators. Phone lines were jammed and email systems overloaded, but the message got through to key Senators who were on the fence.
Ultimately, Republican senators John McCain of Arizona and Susan Collins of Maine stated that they would vote no, effectively killing the chances for passage of the bill. It was never brought to the Senate floor for consideration.
But as we have learned, ACA repeal will not go away. The House and Senate are now working on their respective versions of a fiscal year 2018 budget resolution, which will include the “reconciliation” instructions that will allow them to secure only a simple majority (instead of 60 votes) to pass ACA repeal in the Senate. This issue may therefore resurface in November or December…stay tuned!
House Passes NSF Budget Amid Confusion on the Smith Amendment…
On September 14, the House approved an omnibus appropriations comprised of eight fiscal year 2018 appropriations bills previously approved by the House Committee on Appropriations. The package of bills includes the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) Appropriations bill approved in the summer by the House Committee on Appropriations. The bill funds the National Science Foundation (NSF) Research and Related Activities at $6 billion – the same amount as appropriated in fiscal year 2017. Passage of the NSF budget by the House was a firm repudiation of President Trump’s proposed 11 percent cut for NSF.
During floor debate, an amendment offered by Representative Lamar Smith, a republican from Texas and chairman of the House Science Committee, was adopted by voice vote. There was great confusion in the science and higher education community about what this amendment actually does, and its impact on the NSF’s Social, Behavioral and Economic (SBE) research directorate.
Chairman Smith claimed that the amendment would increase funding for physical and biological sciences at NSF. Without additional money, of course, any increase on those directorates would result in decreases for other research directorates. However, the actual language of the Smith Amendment simply reduces the NSF Research and Related Activities line item by $30.2 million, and then increases it by $30.2 million. This is similar to an approach Smith took a few years ago in an effort to increase funding for these sciences with an offset in the SBE and Geosciences directorates. In fact, because the underlying CJS bill does not include specific line-items for the individual directorates, members of Congress cannot offer amendments that directly increase or decrease funding for any of the research directorates.
…While Chairman Culberson Continues to Oppose Picking Winners and Losers Among Scientific Disciplines
During debate on an amendment offered by Representative Jackie Rosen, D-Nevada, that would have sought an increase for computer science research at NSF, Representative John Culberson, the chairman of the House CJS Appropriations Subcommittee, stated on the floor his concern about increasing funding for one discipline of science at the expense of others:
“Further, with respect to the gentlewoman’s statement, I believe it is important that we defer to the National Science Foundation to distribute any additional funds according to the highest priority needs identified by the scientific community and not designate them for a specific directorate.”
The ultimate fate of the fiscal year 2018 NSF appropriation awaits larger decisions by Congress on overall funding levels for defense and non-defense discretionary spending, and the extent to which they will break the budget “caps” enacted several years ago to limit discretionary spending. These decisions will likely be made in November or December as the government operates at fiscal year 2017 levels under a continuing resolution until December 8.
During these final decisions, the House and Senate will have to agree on an overall funding level for NSF Research and Related Activities. While the House bill maintains funding at existing levels, the CJS Appropriations approved by the Senate Committee on Appropriations includes a reduction of $116 million to NSF Research and Related Activities.
Affordable College Textbook Act Re-Introduced in the House
On September 26, Representatives Jared Polis, D-Colorado, and Krysten Sinema, D-Arizona, re-introduced the Affordable College Textbook Act (H.R. 3840) in the House. A companion measure (S. 1864) was introduced in the Senate by Richard Durbin, D-Illinois, Al Franken, D-Minnesota, and Angus King, independent from Maine. The bill would create a grant program to support pilot programs at colleges and universities to create and expand the use of open educational resources as an alternative to traditional textbooks, with the aim of reducing the cost of text materials for college students. The bill also expands requirements for publishers to make all textbooks and other educational materials available for sale individually rather than as a bundle.
The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, or SPARC, endorsed the bill, claiming that “the U.S. college textbook market remains dominated by traditional publishing firms that make it difficult for open textbooks to gain visibility…. Federal intervention is necessary to help open textbooks… and provide much-needed financial relief” to college students.
However, research from Student Monitor and the National Association of College Stores found that student spending on textbooks and college course materials declined for the second year in row, a $23 per student decline in the past year. This trend is due largely to the availability of digital course materials, the increasing use of rental options, and a more competitive retail market.
The Affordable College Textbook failed to move out of committee in either the House or the Senate in the 114th Congress (2015-2016), and there is little indication to suggest that the bill will move anytime soon in the 115th Congress (2017-2018).
In the News…
Social Science and Gill v. Whitford Gerrymandering Case | Monkey Cage blog, Washington Post, October 4
“What’s the evidence? Congress struggles to understand new report on evidence-based policy” | Science Magazine, September 28
‘There Are No Natural Disasters’: A Conversation With Jacob Remes | Pacific Standard, October 3
NSF-funded LIGO pioneers named 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics laureates | National Science Foundation press release, October 3
National Science Foundation: Actions Needed to Improve Oversight of Indirect Costs for Research | GAO Report, September 28
NSF funds research on social media and Hurricane Harvey | The Daily Texan (UT newspaper), October 5
NSF Video on SBE role in Natural Disaster Preparation | The National Science Foundation has recently produced a video highlighting the role its Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences directorate, and SBE research funded by other areas of NSF, has played in helping the U.S. develop enhanced preparation capabilities for major storms and other disasters.
Upcoming Hearings and Briefings
Census 2020: Making Sure Kids Count in the Big Count
Sponsored by the Population Association of America
October 30, Noon to 1:15 p.m.
The Gold Room, 2168 Rayburn House Office Building
The Role of Ecosystem Research in Combatting Emerging Infectious Diseases
The Association of Ecosystem Research Centers will hold a briefing on the role of ecosystem research in combating emerging infectious diseases. Hear from scientific experts about the linkages between wildlife diseases, such as Lyme disease and West Nile virus, and human disease outbreaks. The briefing will address how natural resource management affects public health.
October 24, 2017, 10:30-11:30 a.m.
Capitol Visitor Center, Cafeteria Side Room
Late Night Quotable
Scientists have invented a way for you to change channels on your TV with gestures. Yeah, it’s great for people who like watching sports completely still. “Wow! What a catch — nobody move! Oh, now we’re watching Lifetime.”
Jimmy Fallon, October 3
Scientists have figured out how to generate electricity from tears. In fact, they say that soon, 10 percent of our renewable energy will come from people watching “This Is Us.”
Conan O’Brien, October 3
Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will speak at a rally tomorrow against gerrymandering. Admission is free, but I would still pay $1,000 just to hear him say “gerrymandering.”
Seth Meyers, October 2
Last night, a Republican named Luther Strange lost Alabama Senate primary. So now, “Luther Strange” will go back to his old job — a villain in a Batman comic.
Jimmy Fallon, September 27
This morning, at its annual keynote event, Apple introduced their new ultra-high-end iPhone 10, which will cost $1,000. The new phone comes with a face-recognizing camera called Face ID, which is a great feature unless you live in Hollywood and you have to buy a new phone every time you buy a new face.
James Corden, September 12