As Congress returns to session in the new year, let us catch you up to speed on where they and the rest of the federal government left off at the end of 2023.
We shared our last legislative activity updates in April and, since that time, Congress was simultaneously very busy while not being overly productive regarding appropriations—it averted two potential shutdowns, elected a new House Speaker and saw new federal appointments.
Let’s start with appropriations.
Budget and Appropriations
That process was complicated by stalemates in both the House and the Senate, bringing forth the first government shutdown threat in October. It was narrowly avoided when Congress passed a continuing resolution (CR) that allowed elected officials to continue conversations and negotiations about funding bills with the hope of reaching a consensus before the CR ran out on November 17th. The process was further slowed by the election of new House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) following the ousting of former Congressman Kevin McCarthy (R-CA).
Congress passed a second CR, this time a two-tiered approach. The House and Senate have until January 19 to work out an agreement on the Agriculture-FDA, Energy-Water, Military Construction-VA and Transportation-HUD spending bills. The remaining eight spending bills— Commerce-Justice-Science, Defense, Financial Services, Homeland Security, Interior-Environment, Labor-HHS-Education, Legislative Branch and State-Foreign Operations—have funding until February 2.
Congressional leaders recently struck an agreement on the topline funding levels for the FY 24 bills, which will provide the framework for appropriations leaders to negotiate and finalize spending bills. However, another CR will most likely be needed to provide time for the final bills to be written.
Here’s a breakdown of where things stand for programs of interest to the Duke community:
The second half of 2023 saw a notable focus in the federal government toward the nation’s research initiatives, including artificial intelligence (AI), quantum, and efforts to fund the CHIPS and Science Act fully.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) announced initial plans over the summer to start regulating AI and hosted a series of forums during the fall to help educate senators and staff on the wide-ranging aspects of AI. President Biden also issued the first-ever executive order on AI, which puts forward new standards for AI safety and security, privacy protection and more.
In the early part of the year, The Biden-Harris administration, through the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology, launched the first CHIPS for America funding opportunity for manufacturing incentives to restore U.S. leadership in semiconductor manufacturing. The CHIPS and Science Act was originally signed into law in August of 2022. The Department of Defense announced that under the CHIPS and Science Act, “the award of nearly $240 million to eight regional ‘innovation hubs’ around the United States which will be a part of the Microelectronics Commons.” One of the hubs is slated to come to North Carolina.
While the progress is commendable, more can be done to further the efforts of the CHIPS and Science Act by fully funding the science portion of the law. Duke President Vincent Price wrote on the subject in an op-ed for the Raleigh News and Observer.
Foreign Influences and Research Security
The House Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) issued a list last month outlining a potential blueprint that would help the United States “reset” its economic relationship with China through updated research security measures and tightening the export of technology.
The Defending Education Transparency and Ending Rogue Regimes Engaging in Nefarious Transactions (DETERRENT) Act was passed by the House in December. This legislation would greatly expand disclosure requirements under Section 117 of the Higher Education Act, which governs the disclosure of foreign gifts and contracts by institutions of higher education. The American Council on Education (ACE) wrote a letter in opposition to the DETERRENT Act, citing concerns that, “we believe the DETERRENT Act is duplicative of existing interagency efforts, unnecessary, and puts in place a problematic expansion of the data collection by the U.S. Department of Education that will broadly curtail important needed international research collaboration and academic and cultural exchanges.”
One major development that occurred in the latter half of 2023: the Bipartisan Workforce Pell Act. The House Education and Workforce Committee recently passed the act with the goal of allowing students to use their Pell eligibility to support endeavors in short-term training.
It would be an unprecedented step to deny students access to federal programs based on the institution they chose to attend.
Duke supports the creation of the short-term Pell as it is likely to be accessed by many in Durham and across North Carolina and provide thousands of individuals with important training needed for crucial careers in our growing economy.
If the bill becomes law, over 3,400 Duke students will lose access to these loans – and likely forced to borrow from bank-based lending programs that are more expensive and sometimes hard to access. These programs also lack income-based repayment plans or access to other benefits seen in the federal programs. Duke University School of Medicine Dean Mary E. Klotman and Duke University School of Nursing Interim Dean Michael Relf highlight just what kind of impact that can have on the future of our workforce.
Of other items related to student aid, the Department of Education announced along with its regulatory agenda at the end of 2023 that the final regulations on two Title IX rules would be once again delayed to March of next year. The ED had initially proposed the updates in July of 2022 but was inundated with public comment delaying a decision.
Also facing roadblocks: President Biden’s student loan forgiveness program. The House voted to repeal President Joe Biden’s student loan repayment plan in early December, with a vote to withdraw the Saving on a Valuable Education (SAVE) plan, an income-driven repayment plan for student loans.
After several delays and setbacks, the Education Department officially released the new FAFSA application form in the final hours of 2023, three months later than its typical October 1 release. Despite this announcement, another hurdle is expected to come in the form of processing delays.
Just before Thanksgiving, more than 64 higher education institutions signed a letter urging the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security to extend the visa interview waiver authorities. The waivers allow for authorities to forego in-person interviews for “certain low-risk visa applications.” Thankfully, the Department of State confirmed its plans to extend the waivers, which were set to expire on December 31, 2023.
The Department of State also announced at the end of the year its plans for a pilot program that will allow domestic visa renewals for qualified H–1B nonimmigrant visa applicants who meet certain requirements. The H-1B visa is a nonimmigrant work visa that allows U.S. employers to hire foreign workers with specialized skills to work in the United States for a specific period of time. Typically, the roles require a bachelor’s degree or equivalent. The pilot program resurrects one that had previously ended in 2004 and allows certain H-1B visa holders to renew their applications domestically in the U.S. without having to travel abroad to a consulate.
Federal Appointments and Roles
Several Duke Alumni have been appointed to positions in President Biden’s administration, including Stefanie Feldman PPS’10 who was named director of the new White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention. Kate Klimczak MPP’12 was appointed as the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Associate Director for Legislative Policy and Analysis and Director of the NIH Office of Legislative Policy and Analysis (OLPA).
Another appointment of note includes Dr. Monica Bertagnolli, who now serves as the newest director of the NIH. She succeeds Francis Collins who stepped down in 2021.
In case you missed it—here are the Congressional appointments for the 118th Congress as of our last update.
Other Congressional Engagement
Duke professors were well-represented on the Hill last year, with several traveling to Washington D.C. to participate in showcases, meet with staffers and testify before congressional committees.
Professors Yiran Chen and Jeffrey Krolik participated in the National Science Foundation (NSF) Artificial Intelligence Showcase, highlighting their work with the Pratt School of Engineering’s Athena program. Chen and Krolik also met with congressional staffers as part of a Coalition for National Science Funding advocacy day. Chen was also appointed to serve on the first steering committee for the Academic Alliance for AI Policy, led by Syracuse University.
In the Senate’s AI Insight Forums, Professor Cynthia Rudin provided testimony at the seventh event focused on transparency, explainability, intellectual property and copyright. Professor Jian Pei, chair of Duke’s Computer Science Department, traveled to Washington as part of an advocacy fly-in sponsored by the Computing Research Association.
Other faculty testimonies can be found here, including Jimmie Lenz’s on “Modernizing Financial Services Through Innovation and Competition,” and Stephen Roady’s at a legislative hearing for the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Wildlife and Fisheries.
Back in Durham, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy launched his “We Are Made to Connect” tour of college campuses at Duke “to share inspiration and resources aimed at helping students and others connect with each other.”
Also in Durham, the Office of Government Relations hosted its first State and District Congressional Staff Day since 2019. The traditional biennial gathering helps showcase Duke University and Duke Health experts and programs impacting North Carolinians to staff serving our state’s congressional delegation. With a community of over 45,000 employees, Duke is the largest homegrown private employer and the second largest private employer overall in the state.