Government Relations

Government Relations Legislative Update

Government Relations Legislative Update

Updates on state and federal issues relating to the UW System.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Federal Update for June 3, 2011

The House met today to consider competing resolutions on U.S. participation in NATO's military activities in Libya, after which it planned to adjourn for a weeklong district work period.  

The Senate was effectively in recess this week, although the chamber remained in pro forma session, with no votes.  When the Senate resumes work on Monday, June 6, it will consider the nomination of Donald Verrilli, Jr. as Solicitor General and will take up a non-controversial reauthorization of the Economic Development Administration (S. 782).    

Although various groups of lawmakers met with the President and other Administration officials this week, there appears to be no progress in agreeing on a measure to raise the federal debt ceiling that would include a deficit reduction package.  Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has stated that the debt ceiling must be raised by August 2 to avoid a default on federal obligations.  

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said this week that the bipartisan panel convened by Vice President Joe Biden to come up with a short-term deal was moving too slowly.  He called for the President to "play large ball, not small ball" and to meet directly with congressional leaders to work out a comprehensive deal. reports that the White House has not publicly responded to the Speaker's suggestion.  

Meanwhile, former Senator Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, co-chairs of the President's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, authored an op-ed in today's Washington Post urging both political parties to support the work of the "Gang of Six."  This bipartisan group of Senators has been working to develop a long-term budget and deficit reduction plan that draws heavily on recommendations from the deficit commission.  Although Senator Tom Coburn (OK) is taking a "sabbatical" from the group's deliberations, says the op-ed, the Gang continues to work together "because Americans desperately need them to."

The FY12 appropriations process revved up this week with the House approving the first of the FY12 funding bills, Homeland Security.  The measure provides $1.2 billion less than current funding of $41.8 billion.  Demonstrating how tough it is for Congress to cut popular programs, Members approved an amendment restoring $320 million in local firefighter grants by taking money from Department of Homeland Security (DHS) management accounts.  The Obama Administration is expected to oppose such cuts in DHS management funding when the bill is considered by the Senate.

As Politico reports, the appropriations process will only get more difficult through the summer.  The FY12 budget resolution approved by the House on April 15 calls for cuts in discretionary spending of $31 billion from the FY11 level.  With a $17 billion increase for Defense included in that figure, the cuts to other programs are even deeper.  The House Republican leadership, reports the publication, "is relying on a 'borrow-from-Peter-to-pay-Paul' scheme in which 70 percent of the cuts fall on the last three of the 12 appropriations bills.  These are the Labor-HHS-Education, Transportation-Housing, and State-Foreign Aid bills.  The proposed cuts—$18 billion, $7.7 billion, and $5.8 billion, respectively—will make those bills "virtually impossible to move until there is some [budget] compromise reached with the White House."  

The House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee marked up its FY12 funding bill on June 2, working with an allocation of $30.6 billion, or about $1 billion less than the FY11 level.   A prepared statement by Subcommittee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) notes that this brings total funding down to approximately the FY05 level.

Within that amount, the Department of Energy (DOE) would absorb $850 million of the $1 billion cut, for total FY12 funding of $24.7 billion.  The DOE Office of Science would receive $4.8 billion, a $43 million cut, and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy would receive $100 million, or about an $89 million cut.  

Two groups of Senators have written to Senate appropriators asking that Department of Energy (DOE) research programs be given priority in the FY12 Energy and Water appropriations bill.  

The first letter, spearheaded by Senators Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) and signed by 19 Senators (including Wisconsin Senator Herb Kohl), asks the subcommittee to continue to support the DOE Office of Science as one of the highest priorities in its FY12 funding bill.  The letter says that the Office of Science—as the nation's primary sponsor of research in the physical sciences, host to a variety of unique scientific user facilities, and supporter of a first-rate workforce of research scientists and engineers—is key to the nation's capacity to innovate, reduce dependence on foreign sources of energy, ensure national security, and create good jobs now and in the future.    

The second letter, initiated by Senators Chris Coons (D-DE) and Bingaman and signed by 17 Senators, urges strong funding for three Department of Energy programs: ARPA-E, Energy Innovation Hubs, and Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs).   The three programs are complementary, says the letter, supporting scientific research and technological advances at different stages of the innovation process and with differing levels of risk.  Together, the letter says, these programs will "maximize the nation's ability to achieve energy breakthroughs as quickly as possible."

The Department of Education on June 2 released its long-awaited "gainful employment", aimed at requiring career college programs to better prepare their students for gainful employment or risk losing access to federal student aid.  The controversial rules, first proposed last July, focus on the amount of debt that students in for-profit and certificate programs accrue and their prospects for paying it off.  While aimed at improving practices at certain for-profit institutions, the new regulations also will affect certificate and vocational programs at non-profit institutions.  The final regulations offer colleges significantly more leeway than the original proposed rules.  They lower the required debt-to-income ratios, delay implementation of the rules, and provide institutions more chances to fix problems before losing their eligibility for federal financial aid.

(AAU and the UW System Office of Federal Relations contributed to this report.)