Congress Takes Action | January 3, 2011 Issue - Vol. 89 Issue 1 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 89 Issue 1 | p. 20
Issue Date: January 3, 2011

Congress Takes Action

Several key science measures clear during lame-duck session
Department: Government & Policy
Keywords: tax credits, America Competes, food safety, federal budget
Credit: Architect of the Capitol
Credit: Architect of the Capitol

As part of a surge of activity before the end of the 111th Congress, the Senate and the House of Representatives passed several pieces of legislation that are important to the chemical enterprise. The chambers sent to the President’s desk bills to provide tax relief, reauthorize the America Competes Act, overhaul food safety in the U.S., and keep the federal government running.

This congressional action—coming in the span of less than a week—was a marked contrast from that coming out of the legislative branch during the rest of 2010. Members in both chambers worked to clear various bills until they adjourned in late December. They will reconvene for the 112th Congress on Jan. 3.

The first in the flurry of bills affecting the scientific enterprise to get congressional approval was a bipartisan agreement to extend Bush-era tax cuts through 2012 and continue a series of business tax breaks, including a credit designed to encourage investment in research and development.

The bill is “a good deal for the American people. This is progress, and that’s what they sent us here to achieve,” President Barack Obama remarked at a White House signing ceremony on Dec. 17. The bill, he said, “will protect our middle class, grow our economy, and create jobs.”

The $858 billion package (H.R. 4853) includes a number of items that business groups have been lobbying for, such as a retroactive two-year extension of the 20% tax credit for R&D expenditures, which lapsed at the end of 2009. The tax bill also includes a one-year extension of a renewable-energy grant program and tax credits for domestic ethanol production and energy efficiency projects.

The bill was passed just before midnight on Dec. 16 in a rare show of bipartisanship in the House. The vote was 277 to 148, with each party contributing an almost identical number of votes in favor—the Democrats 139 and the Republicans 138. The Senate had easily cleared the measure a day earlier by a vote of 81 to 19 (C&EN, Dec. 20, 2010, page 7).

In a surprise move, the Senate passed legislation on Dec. 19 that will overhaul food safety in the U.S. The unexpected vote brought new life to the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510), which passed the Senate on Nov. 30 but was presumed dead by many people because of a technical error (C&EN, Dec. 6, 2010, page 9). The House passed a corrected bill on Dec. 21 and sent it to the President for his signature.

The legislation will give the Food & Drug Administration sweeping new authorities to help prevent food-borne illness, including the power to recall unsafe food. It will require food producers to develop plans to prevent contamination, and it will increase the number of FDA inspections at food manufacturing facilities.

“Our food safety system has not been updated in almost a century,” Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said in a statement on Dec. 19. “We unanimously passed a measure to improve on our current food safety system by giving the FDA the resources it needs to keep up with advances in food production and marketing, without unduly burdening farmers and food producers.”

The food safety bill had strong bipartisan support in both chambers, but it ran into trouble in November when senators added new fees for reinspections, mandatory recalls, and importer registrations. Because all measures that involve fees must originate in the House, the bill was deemed to be unconstitutional by the House Ways & Means Committee.

To fix the error, Reid stripped language from an unrelated bill that originated in the House (H.R. 2751) and replaced it with the text of S. 510. The bill then passed the Senate by voice vote and two days later passed the House.

Another surprise action came on Dec. 17 when the Senate passed a bill by unanimous consent to reauthorize the America Competes Act, a 2007 law that aims to double over a decade the research budgets of the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards & Technology, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. The measure (S. 3605) was sent to the President’s desk after the House passed it on Dec. 21 by a 228 to 130 vote.

The bill recommends budget increases of 20% for NSF by 2013, 21% for NIST, and 22% for DOE’s Office of Science. However, because they are authorization measures, they only set guidelines for future funding levels. S. 3605 also stretches the completion of the budget-doubling period for the trio of agencies to 10 years from now.

Beyond setting recommended funding levels, the legislation reorganizes and creates new research programs within the agencies. For example, the bill calls for NSF to establish a dedicated green chemistry basic research program that would award competitive grants to support research on clean, safe, and economical alternatives to traditional chemical products and practices. S. 3605 also directs NSF to establish a policy to use at least 5% of the agency’s research budget to fund high-risk, high-reward research proposals.

The lame-duck Congress also passed a continuing budget resolution to keep the government running through March 4. The measure would hold funding for most federal agencies at fiscal 2010 levels. It also includes a provision to extend the Homeland Security Department’s authority to regulate high-risk chemical facilities.

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