Congress Faces a Long To-Do List this Legislative Season

JIM BOURG / POOL / GETTY IMAGES

September 6, 2018

Although on campus September begins the new year, it is the last month for Congress to accomplish anything before midterm elections. This past year saw a massive topline budget deal struck between the two parties, short-term government shutdown this spring and various court cases pertaining to immigration. Fall 2018 shows no signs of slowing down. With the midterm elections in November, continued immigration litigation, a threatened government shutdown and, of course, confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee, Judge Brett Kavanaugh Congress faces a long to-do list this legislative season.

Appropriations

In August, the Senate passed an $857 billion FY19 minibus-spending package that funds the departments of Defense, Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. Before leaving for the month-long August recess, the House passed six of their 12 appropriations bills; the Senate passed nine. To hash out differences, the House and Senate began a conference meeting this week for the FY19 minibus-spending package that funds Energy, Nuclear Security, Veterans’ Affairs and Congressional operations. Initial negotiations are also underway for the package that contains the Defense and Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education bills. No spending bills have made it to President Trump’s desk for signature.

The Association of American Universities (AAU) has a chart illustrating the current state of appropriations, both in terms of funding levels and legislative progress. The prospects for federal research and education programs are positive as both House and Senate bills include increased funding above the Administration’s request.

Two salient examples can be found in NEH and ARPA-E, both of which the administration’s budget request proposed for elimination. The House not only funded both, and in the case of NEH, at a record high level, but also defeated attempts to defund the programs during floor consideration. Every Republican Member of the North Carolina delegation voted in favor of amendments to defund those two programs.

Despite the momentum this spring and summer for developing bills that contain positive funding recommendations, Congress faces a deadline to pass the final compromise funding packages or a continuing resolution to fund the government by the end of this month. President Trump suggested he might shut down the government in order to secure funding for his border wall, but Republicans on the Hill have yet to echo that interest.

Congress also spotlighted alleged academic espionage at universities through hearings and various legislative proposals this summer. Most prominent was the so-called Gallagher amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, which attempted to limit funding to researchers participating in foreign talent recruitment programs. Thanks to efforts from the higher education community, that amendment was replaced with language in the final National Defense Authorization Act that creates a forum for universities to engage with DOD and other security agencies to discuss effective ways in which to address issues involving national security.

The Higher Education Act

The House GOP’s rewrite of the Higher Education Act, dubbed the PROSPER Act has hit a legislative wall. Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-NC) pushed her bill through committee last fall in the hopes of speeding its passage, but the bill has yet to be called for consideration on the House floor due to lack of support amongst Republican members. Duke opposes the bill because of its significant changes to federal student loan programs that would drastically limit access to higher education, particularly for graduate and professional students.

Stuck in the Courts

The only part of government moving slower than Congress is the courts with net neutrality and the DACA program still in legal limbo.

Net Neutrality

In December 2017 Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai ended the 2015 net neutrality rule that ordered internet service providers treat all content flowing through their cables and cell towers equally. In May 2018, the Senate voted in favor of a bill to overturn the FCC decision through the Congressional Review Act, but the House has yet to act on the measure. The FCC ruling went into effect this past June, but is being contested in the courts. AAU recently authored an amicus brief supporting net neutrality for one of the cases.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals

So far, six federal courts have heard DACA-related cases with two decisions ordering the government to keep the program going despite proposals to end it earlier this year. Friday, Aug. 17, D.C.-based District Judge John Bates walked back his demand that the Trump administration accept new DACA applications. However, this order does not interfere with previous decisions that the Trump administration continue processing existing DACA renewals.

In a suit filed by Texas and six other conservative states, a federal judge declined to order the government to end the DACA program citing the states’ inability to prove that the DACA program caused them “irreparable harm.” The judge questioned the legality of DACA but argued that DACA recipients would face more harm if they lost the program.

This ruling means the Trump administration must resume accepting renewals for the existing 700,000 DACA recipients, perhaps until June 2019 when the Supreme Court may weigh in.

Duke supports the right of DACA students and colleagues to stay in the United States and to continue their studies and contribute to our communities and the economy.

National Security

Another area of immigration under additional scrutiny is Congressional concern with international student and researcher roles in alleged breaches of national security and the loss of intellectual property. In light of these concerns, additional vetting of visa applicants is likely in the coming months.

National Quantum Initiative

Congress worked through the summer to bring the National Quantum Initiative into existence. The administration also elevated quantum information sciences to priority status through their inclusion in the FY 2020 R&D budget priorities memo sent to agencies in late July. The National Quantum Initiative Act coordinates a federal program to accelerate quantum research and development for the economic and national security of the United States. Duke has been a key stakeholder in this process and will continue to work closely with peer institutions as this proposal moves through Congress.

Fall 2018

Fall 2018 proves to be a challenging season for Congress. As they veer towards a fiscal dead-end and avoid overly distracting issues before the midterm elections, the Duke Office of Government Relations will continue to keep you updated on important legislative matters.

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