August 19, 2021
Washington, DC, Updates
Looking at Congress in recent weeks, we see many moving parts that are of interest and progressing to some extent, but none are close to being complete. Both houses are on August recess, which is a time for members of Congress to spend time at home to visit with constituents. As legislative action is at a pause, it is a good time to take a look at where things stand and what lies ahead. We will look briefly at ag appropriations, infrastructure and budget reconciliation, and the debt ceiling.
Ag Appropriations: Last month, we reported that the House had moved forward with their $26.5 billion spending plans for the FY 2022 Agriculture budget that would provide about a 10% increase over current funding levels, including $3.391 billion ($321 million above the FY 2021 enacted level) for agriculture research programs. We note that it did pass in a bipartisan manner. The bill passed in the House was included as part of a Seven-Bill Appropriations Package.
This month, the Senate moved their similar version forward. The Senate version, which has cleared the Appropriations committee, totals about $25.9 billion, a $2.46 billion increase. The bill would boost spending on ag research by $292 million over the current fiscal year to $3.6 billion, roughly the same increase included in the bill that cleared the House. The Agricultural Research Service (ARS) would get $1.67 billion, whereas the House bill has $1.64 billion for ARS. A committee release highlights several areas of funding.
The fact that it has moved this far in both houses in a bipartisan manner and includes similar funding levels is positive, but it is still far from complete. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said that the three bills that were before the Appropriations committee (the panel also approved the Energy and Water and Military Construction measures) "are not on track to cross the finish line out on the floor" because there is no agreement yet on overall spending levels for the new fiscal year, which starts October 1. This makes it imperative that a budget reconciliation bill pass.
Congress seems unlikely to pass a final appropriations bill before the September 30 deadline. Instead, they will likely pass a continuing resolution that would maintain FY 2021 spending levels for most agencies. Some version of this will then be rolled into a larger omnibus package for final passage. The positive aspect is that it does advance a strong package for agriculture research.
Infrastructure: Infrastructure has been in the news many times in recent years, but without any action. Now, for the first time in years, there has been movement. The Senate voted 69-30 to pass the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package. The bill would deliver hundreds of billions of dollars for roads, bridges, waterways, and other "hard infrastructure" items. It is seen as a victory for both sides, but its future remains uncertain. The bill will cost $1.2 trillion over eight years, and offers more than $550 billion in new spending, including
- $110 billion in new funds for roads, bridges, and major projects ($40 billion is new funding for bridge repair, replacement, and rehabilitation, and $17.5 billion is for major projects)
- $73 billion for the country's electric grid and power structures
- $66 billion for rail services
- $65 billion for broadband
- $55 billion for water infrastructure
- $21 billion in environmental remediation
- $47 billion for flooding and coastal resiliency
- $39 billion to modernize transit (the largest federal investment in public transit in history, according to the White House)
- $25 billion for airports
- $17 billion in port infrastructure
- $11 billion in transportation safety programs
- $7.5 billion for electric vehicles and EV charging; $2.5 billion in zero-emission buses, $2.5 billion in low-emission buses, and $2.5 billion for ferries
- The bill will include language regarding enforcement of unemployment insurance fraud.
The measure will add $256 billion in projected deficits over eight years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. It now goes to the House for its action. Some members want to wait and consider the budget reconciliation bill at the same time, whereas others are pushing to take it up as quickly as possible. Negotiations on a path forward will continue during the August break.
The Senate did move immediately to consider the $3.5 trillion budget resolution put forward by the Democrats. It passed the first hurdle on a 50-49 vote, so it is moving forward for now. This is the second part of what the Democrats consider the full infrastructure package and it contains many of the remaining priorities in the administration's agenda. It would expand Medicare, seek to combat climate change, and boost federal safety net programs, including those that target children and low-income parents. It paves the way for universal pre-kindergarten and new family leave benefits, and it aims to help immigrants obtain legal permanent residency status. Obviously it has a long way to go if it is to become law.
Debt Ceiling: One issue that Congress will need to deal with is the debt ceiling. This is a limit that Congress imposes on how much debt the Federal Government can carry at any given time. When the ceiling is reached, the US Treasury Department cannot issue any more Treasury bills, bonds, or notes. It can only pay bills as it receives tax revenues. If the revenue isn’t enough, the Treasury Secretary must choose between paying federal employee salaries, Social Security benefits, or the interest on the national debt. Without congressional action, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projects that the government will probably run out of cash to pay its bills at some point this fall, likely in October or November. Normally the debt ceiling has been an uncontroversial issue. During the last administration, the GOP pushed increasing or suspending the limit multiple times, but now they oppose it. It is unclear when or what action will be taken.
Scientific Integrity Task Force
Earlier this year, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) announced the launch of its Scientific Integrity Task Force. According to OSTP, it is intended to "lift up the voices of federal scientists of many perspectives and backgrounds, in order to ensure that scientific integrity is paramount in federal governance for years to come. The Task Force will review existing federal scientific integrity policies to identify effective solutions that will help improve the lives of the American people, inform innovative and equitable policy, and revitalize the confidence of the American public in its government." It is seen as an effort to demonstrate the administration's commitment to and support of science. The task force is charged with responding to President Biden's call to action to strengthen federal science in his Memorandum on Restoring Trust in Government Through Scientific Integrity and Evidence-Based Policymaking. A report is expected from the task force later this fall.
Status of US Department of Agriculture Appointees
It has taken a while, but things are beginning to move on filling positions at USDA that require Senate confirmation. Below is an overview of the current situation as of August 11:
Five confirmed: Secretary Tom Vilsack, Deputy Secretary Jewel H. Bronaugh, General Counsel Janie Simms Hipp, Undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs Jennifer Moffitt, and Inspector General Phyllis K. Fong.
Five at Senate: Undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation Robert Bonnie, Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment Homer Wilkes, Undersecretary for Rural Development Xochitl Torres Small, Undersecretary for Research, Education and Economics Chavonda Jacobs-Young, and Assistant Secretary for Congressional Relations Adrienne Wojciechowski.
Five positions have no nominee yet named.
FASS Joins Letters in Support of Research
FASS continues to join in coalition letters to Congress and the Biden Administration advocating for research funding. In the most recent letter (July 14, 2021), FASS joined 36 other scientific and medical organizations in a letter to the chair and ranking member of the House Committee on Appropriations urging that Congress follow an evidence-based process to ensure that answers in the COVID-19 pandemic are grounded in sound science, are as complete as possible, and are based in fact.
Additional letters are planned as the budget process moves forward. Copies of these and past letters are available in the Coalition Letters section of the Science Policy area of www.fass.org.
FASS Science Policy Committee
The FASS Science Policy Committee meets monthly via Zoom call. The group continues to make progress on updating the FASS Science Policy Statements. We are currently working with speakers for our Science Policy seminar, "The 2023 Farm Bill - Perspectives and Priorities for Animal Research" that will be held October 12 and 13 as part of the ADSA Annual Meeting Fall Webinar series-details to follow!
Please contact me if you have questions, ideas, or suggestions on any of these or other policy issues. We will provide additional information as it becomes available. We need to work together to maintain a strong and effective national research effort.
If you are interested in serving on the Science Policy Committee or communicating occasionally with members of Congress on issues related to animal agriculture, we are looking for FASS science policy advocates. Please contact me for details.
Ken Olson, PhD, PAS
FASS Science Policy Coordinator