APS News

Washington Dispatch

ISSUE: Budget and Authorization Environment

Appropriations Update
Since the last Dispatch in May there has been no movement on the assorted Fiscal Year 2011 Appropriations bills in either chamber of Congress. The difficult political environment in Washington has created a situation where the Democratic Party is reluctant to act on spending measures for fear of appearing to be wasting tax dollars, and the Republican Party, sensing a favorable reception from the public in an election year, is staking out a position to roll back government spending in general. The only FY11 Appropriation bills expected to pass on time are Defense and Homeland Security. All other FY11 Appropriations bills will likely fall under a Continuing Resolution lasting until February 2011 and possibly later, depending on the outcome of the Congressional mid-term elections in November.


America COMPETES Reauthorization
The America COMPETES bill, originally passed in 2007, authorized activities for the DOE Office of Science, National Science Foundation (NSF), and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) for three years.

On May 7th, the House Science and Technology Committee, following a daylong consideration of nearly 60 amendments, passed the reauthorization bill, H.R. 5116. Although the bill garnered five GOP votes, Ranking Member Ralph Hall (R-TX) was not among them, and tepid support from Republicans spelled trouble down the road.

Trouble came on May 13, when the H.R. 5116 reached the House floor. Election-year politics and the toxic partisan environment carried the day. Following all debate and consideration of amendments, Republicans introduced a “Motion to Recommit” (MTR) that stripped out all the increased authorizations for science, freezing spending for the next three years at 2010 levels. Opponents of the bill also included a “poison pill” provision requiring that all NSF personnel who had been found guilty of using office computers to watch pornography be fired. The provision caught the bill’s sponsors by surprise, and 121 Democrats opted to support the MTR to avoid being tarred in November as pornography supporters. The motion passed 292 to 126, sending the bill back to committee.

On May 19th, using a new bill number to circumvent the MTR, the sponsors brought the legislation back to the floor under “suspension of the rules.” The bill received 261 yea votes but failed to get the requisite two-thirds needed for suspension passage, leaving the legislation’s fate uncertain. Nine days later, immediately before the Memorial Day recess, in a surprise move, Democrats returned to H.R. 5116, using a parliamentary maneuver called “a division of the question” that allowed separate votes on each of the nine “instructions” contained in the MTR. Only two of the nine amendments passed: one on pornography and one requiring universities accepting federal funds to permit ROTC and military recruiting on campus. During the final vote on passage of the bill, 17 Republicans joined 245 Democrats voting yea.

The Senate is expected to produce a draft text for its version of COMPETES Reauthorization prior to the July 4th recess. Provided the bill contains no new or extraneous provisions and is simply a reauthorization of the 2007 Act, a bipartisan outcome may be possible.

Be sure to check the APS Washington Office’s Blog, Physics Frontline, for the latest news on the FY11 Budget.
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ISSUE: POPA & PPC Activities
The Energy Critical Elements Study Group, which is examining the scarcity of critical elements for new energy technologies, held its first meeting in late April at MIT. The meeting focused on technology issues, reserving all policy considerations for a second workshop that will be held in Washington, DC in the fall.
 
The Electric Grid Study Group, which is examining the technical challenges and priorities for increasing the amount of renewable electricity on the grid, presented and discussed its draft report with POPA in June. The Study Group will seek approval on a final version of the report from POPA later this summer.
 
The Direct Air Capture Study Group provided an update at the June POPA meeting. Their draft report is currently going through an external review process.
 
In consultation with the Constitution and Bylaws Committee, POPA is reviewing the procedures for developing and approving APS Statements to ensure that the APS membership is consulted well in advance of any Council action.

As a sequel to its recent study, Technical Steps to Support Nuclear Arsenal Downsizing, the National Security subcommittee is planning a workshop with the goal of catalyzing cooperation among industries in the nuclear supply arena concerning potentially proliferation-related technology.

At the June 7th Physics Policy Committee (PPC) meeting, a charge was approved to form a joint POPA-PPC Working Group. The Working Group, which will include members from both committees as well as outside experts, will examine how basic and applied research can better address the nation’s needs, and make recommendations for improving the innovation process and enhancing the manufacturing capabilities of high technology products in the US.

If you have suggestions for a POPA study, send in your ideas.
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ISSUE: Media Update
The Buffalo News and Salt Lake City Tribune published letters to the editor on June 1 by two APS members who commended their congressional representatives for supporting the reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act. Ia Iashvili, an assistant professor in the Department of Physics at SUNY Buffalo, thanked U.S. Rep. Chris Lee (R-NY) for his vote on the act, while Eric Sorte, a PhD candidate in the Department of Physics of the University of Utah, lauded U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson (D-UT) for his support.

In other media news, the Financial Times published a story on May 18th detailing physicists’ caution regarding proliferation risks associated with smaller, more efficient nuclear power technologies. Francis Slakey, APS associate director of public affairs, was quoted in the piece. APS’s recent report, Technical Steps to Support Nuclear Downsizing, found that smaller technologies could represent proliferation game changers, leading to more efficient methods for production and use of nuclear materials that would be harder to detect.

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Editor: Alan Chodos