If the events leading up to the start of the first session of the 113th Congress are any indication, this year will be dominated by partisan gridlock and eleventh-hour maneuvering to avoid calamities. And although many important science topics warrant congressional attention, the initial focus of the new Congress will be on U.S. fiscal policy.
On the fiscal front, three potential national disasters loom. First, the U.S. government is expected to hit its debt ceiling as early as mid-February, a milestone that requires Congress to pass legislation raising the nation’s borrowing cap or risk defaulting on its loans. Second, without congressional action, some $109 trillion in automatic across-the-board spending cuts to the federal budget will kick in on March 1, affecting all R&D agencies. And last, but hardly least, Congress has yet to finalize the fiscal 2013 federal budget. The government has been funded since Oct. 1, 2012, by a stopgap, six-month spending measure that will run out in late March.
Although these fiscal problems must take center stage, many science-related issues cry out for attention. However, the fierce partisan divide in both the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives makes movement on science matters highly unlikely.
Among the science-related topics that have made it onto the radar screens of congressional committees are the reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act, which governs chemical manufacturing, and the reauthorization of the America Competes Act, which supports basic R&D. In the Senate, a push to address climate change appears to be in the cards, and in the House, drug safety is likely to be a priority again this year. Also expected to be on the year’s congressional docket are natural gas production, international trade policy, and chemical plant security.
The following is C&EN’s annual outlook of what to expect from Congress in the coming months.