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2014 Congressional Outlook

Election year, partisan gridlock mean tough road for science issues

by Government & Policy Department
January 27, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 4


A photo of the Capitol partially lost in a dark haze.
Credit: Newscom

The second session of the 113th Congress is not expected to yield much progress on key science issues. The partisan politics that have stymied Congress during the past few years is not letting up. In addition, action in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and the Democrat-controlled Senate is likely to drop off precipitously by late summer as lawmakers’ attention shifts to campaigning for the fall midterm elections.

What follows is C&EN’s annual outlook of what Congress is likely to consider in the coming year.


Congress is still attempting to modernize the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), a law that governs commercial chemicals. But for this reform to occur, Congress will have to vote on legislation by midyear before lawmakers shift their focus to election campaigns.

In 2013, most action on TSCA reform was in the Senate. The late Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) introduced the first-ever bipartisan bill to reform TSCA. Lautenberg died just weeks after introduction of the measure, S. 1009, after which Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) took the lead for Democrats on the legislation.

For the past half year, Vitter and Udall have been seeking common ground on changes they both acknowledge that the bill needs. One such change is setting deadlines for the Environmental Protection Agency to complete safety assessments of commercial chemicals, which the legislation would require for the first time.

Vitter says he and Udall are delicately building revised provisions to S. 1009. “I’m confident we’ll keep our strong bipartisan momentum going,” Vitter says, “to once and for all reform the outdated, unworkable Toxic Substances Control Act.”

The House of Representatives is preparing to move its own reform bill this year. In 2013, the House Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Environment & the Economy held four hearings on TSCA. Rep. John M. Shimkus (R-Ill.), chairman of that subcommittee, announced in December 2013 that he intends to craft a TSCA modernization bill. Observers note his staff is working to drum up bipartisan support for the measure, which they expect to be introduced within weeks.

As the momentum for TSCA reform builds, more segments of the private sector are entering the debate. Notably, a newly formed business coalition, Companies for Safer Chemicals, is positioning itself in close alignment with health and environmental advocates by seeking tougher provisions than the chemical industry wants in TSCA modernization legislation.

“Strong lobbying by other industry groups has given policymakers the impression that business is monolithic in its support for weak legislation” to reform TSCA, according to the coalition, which includes consumer product, fashion, and food makers such as Seventh Generation, Patagonia, Stonyfield Farm, and Eileen Fisher.

Companies for Safer Chemicals opposes a provision in S. 1009 that the chemical industry desperately desires: preemption of state laws and regulation of chemicals to establish a single, nationwide system. The group says any rewrite of the chemical control law “must respect the rights of states to protect their residents when the federal government fails to do so.”

Pesticide regulation is also expected to be on the radar of lawmakers because of a provision in a version of a new five-year farm bill. Both the House and Senate have passed farm bill legislation, but the two chambers are struggling to reach consensus.

Supported by pesticide makers and grower groups, a provision in the House-passed version of the farm bill (H.R. 2642) would eliminate a 2009 court-ordered requirement that pesticide applicators obtain a discharge permit under the Clean Water Act (CWA) when applying pesticides in or over navigable waters. A CWA permit, provision proponents say, is unnecessary and duplicative because the effects of pesticides on aquatic environments are already considered under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide & Rodenticide Act (FIFRA).

The Senate-passed version of the farm bill (S. 954) does not contain such a provision. Senate Environment & Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and committee member Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) blocked consideration of such legislation in 2012, arguing that EPA’s standard for assessing aquatic effects of pesticides under FIFRA is insufficient to protect the environment and humans from harm.

H.R. 2642 also addresses EPA’s failure to incorporate endangered species consultations into hundreds of pesticide safety reviews. It would direct EPA, the Fish & Wildlife Service, and the National Marine Fisheries Service to work together as required under the Endangered Species Act and follow the streamlined consultation approach outlined in a 2013 National Academy of Sciences report.  —CHERYL HOGUE & BRITT ERICKSON



Mirroring last year, energy-related legislation will face a steep climb in 2014. In the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, energy bills may pass, but they are unlikely to be taken up in the Senate. The House legislation will likely not plow new ground, but rather aim to roll back previously enacted laws and regulations. In the more closely divided Senate, simply marshaling enough agreement and votes to pass energy-related bills will be difficult, particularly as time moves closer to the November elections.

A top energy priority in the House will be legislative efforts to limit the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent proposal to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from new coal- and gas-fired power plants. EPA’s proposal is extremely unpopular with coal-state members of Congress, even though it is limited. The proposal does not cover existing power plants; new natural gas plants can comply by doing nothing; and although new coal-fired plants will have to find a way to partially limit CO2 emissions, compliance is stretched out for seven years through an emissions-average scheme.

The House Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Energy & Power, led by Chairman Edward Whitfield (R-Ky.), cleared a bill (H.R. 3826) on Jan. 14 that would stop EPA from enacting the power plant proposal. Passage by the full House is likely this year. Similar legislation is expected to be introduced in the Senate by Joseph Manchin III (D-W.Va.), but the measure is unlikely to pass the Senate.

Although such legislation would be a direct attack on President Barack Obama’s Climate Action Plan, there are efforts in the Senate to advance the plan. Led by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee held a hearing this month where federal agencies explained their efforts to meet greenhouse gas reductions under Obama’s climate plan.

Boxer is one of several Senate Democrats who are attempting to fire up interest in climate-change and greenhouse-gas-emissions reductions. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Boxer this month announced the formation of a Senate climate task force made up of a handful of Senate Democrats. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has backed these efforts, but legislation is highly unlikely because of deep divisions within the Senate, staff say.

In other energy areas, the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee is expected to look into nuclear waste issues in an attempt to develop a new scheme to address radioactive waste from nuclear power plants. In addition, a sharp debate is expected in this committee over removal of limitations in place since the mid-1970s that block the export of U.S. crude oil. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), other oil-state senators, and the oil industry are pushing to end the export ban, arguing that the flood of new U.S. oil resources makes the export ban unnecessary and costly to industry.—JEFF JOHNSON



More than 50 tax incentives expired at the end of 2013, including an R&D tax credit that allowed companies to write off up to 20% of those expenses.

Lawmakers often let the temporary tax breaks lapse and then renew them retroactively for one to two years. For example, Congress has extended the research credit more than a dozen times since it was created in 1981.

But the chemical, pharmaceutical, and other research-intensive industries complain that Congress is making it impossible for them to plan ahead. “The uncertainty of an on-again, off-again credit influences companies’ future R&D budgets, particularly when manufacturers are courted by other countries with more generous and permanent R&D tax incentives and lower corporate tax rates,” says the R&D Credit Coalition, a diverse group of manufacturers.

To avoid the year-to-year dilemma, the coalition is urging Congress to make the R&D credit a permanent part of the corporate tax code and to increase its value. Two pieces of legislation introduced in the House of Representatives in December would accomplish this task.

Both of the bills are sponsored by California Democrats, and both would make the R&D tax credit permanent. Where the proposals differ is in their treatment of a simplified formula for calculating the credit, which most companies now use.

Rep. Scott H. Peters’s legislation (H.R. 3757) would increase the value of the Alternative Simplified Credit from 14% to 20%, making it commensurate with the more complex traditional credit for basic research. Rep. Julia Brownley’s bill (H.R. 3640) would boost the alternative credit to 50% of qualified expenses.

Despite the business community’s strong support for the R&D incentive, William E. Allmond IV, vice president of government relations at the Society of Chemical Manufacturers & Affiliates (SOCMA), a specialty chemical companies trade group, notes that many Senate Democrats and House Republicans have indicated that they would rather work on comprehensive tax reform than on extending temporary credits in the existing tax code.

Reauthorization of the America Competes Act, which fosters U.S. global competitiveness, is also likely to be on the congressional agenda for 2014. Democrats and Republicans in the House late last year circulated competing discussion drafts of bills to reauthorize the law, and the full bills could be introduced soon.

The bipartisan law—which expired in October 2013—had set an ambitious goal of improving the nation’s global competitiveness by doubling funding for the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards & Technology, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, among other things. That increased funding goal is not expected to be part of the reauthorization this year.

Senate and House Democrats seem to be leaning toward a reauthorization bill similar in scope to the recently expired law. House Republicans, however, have discussed possibly splitting America Competes into two bills—one to focus on Office of Science programs and the other on NSF and NIST programs. A discussion draft from Republicans also included a controversial provision that would add layers to NSF’s peer review process for grants. It is unclear which provisions will be in the introduced legislation.

Immigration reform is another area expected to see action this year. The first bipartisan immigration legislation in decades passed the Senate last year. But House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has yet to bring the measure to the House floor, saying it lacks enough Republican support to pass.

Observers say this year Boehner might introduce a series of bills from broadly popular parts of the Senate’s proposal. Among the possibilities is legislation to make it easier for companies to hire temporary science, technology, mathematics, and engineering (STEM) workers from overseas and make it easier for U.S.-educated STEM workers to stay in the country after graduation. — GLENN HESS & ANDREA WIDENER



Deaths linked to the consumption of dietary supplements and caffeinated energy drinks prompted some members of Congress to push for more regulatory oversight of such products last year. If the trend continues, the Dietary Supplement Labeling Act (S. 1425) introduced last August by Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) could see movement this year.

S. 1425 would require companies to provide the Food & Drug Administration with information about each supplement they produce, including the name and a description of the product, a list of ingredients, and a copy of the product’s label. Durbin first introduced the Dietary Supplement Labeling Act in 2011.

From 2008 to 2011, FDA received more than 6,300 adverse-event reports for dietary supplements, according to a March 2013 report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. The report also notes that poison centers received more reports of such adverse events than did FDA.

The growing threat of antibiotic resistance is also likely to get the attention of Congress this year. Animal producers and the animal drug industry are closely watching two bills introduced last year that aim to curb antibiotic resistance.

One of the bills, the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (H.R. 1150), was introduced in the House of Representatives last March by Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.). The other, the Preventing Antibiotic Resistance (PAR) Act (S. 1256), was introduced in the Senate last June by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

Both bills would require animal producers to show that antibiotics are used to treat diseases, not enhance the growth of livestock. FDA is hoping manufacturers of animal antibiotics will voluntarily change their drug labels to prohibit the use of medically important antibiotics for enhancing animal growth or improving feed efficiency. If companies fail to go along with FDA’s plan, Congress may try to pass legislation that would require them to do so.—BRITT ERICKSON



Congress is expected to consider legislation early this year that would give the White House special trade authority. The Obama Administration is seeking trade promotion authority to ease congressional passage of several proposed free-trade agreements, including one being negotiated with a group of 11 Pacific region nations and another with the 28-nation European Union.

Trade promotion authority lets Congress set parameters for considering trade deals. And it allows the White House to submit presidentially negotiated trade pacts to Congress for an up or down vote without any amendments.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and House of Representatives Ways & Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) introduced identical bills in their respective chambers on Jan. 9 to renew the authority, which expired in 2007.

Without this fast-track procedure, “negotiating partners are unlikely to put their best offers on the table for fear that Congress could reopen the proposal and strip them from the final agreement,” says a spokesman for the American Chemistry Council, an industry trade group.

U.S. negotiators are in the final stages of reaching a deal, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, with countries in Asia. They have also begun talks with the EU on an accord being called the Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership.

“Concluding these negotiations, as well as other trade agreements, will require congressional passage of trade promotion authority legislation,” Camp says. “Given the considerable bipartisan and bicameral progress that has been made on that front, I expect we will be in a position to do so” early in 2014.

Trade promotion authority is a “critical tool to advance U.S. trade agreements and support job growth within industries such as specialty chemical manufacturing,” says William E. Allmond IV, vice president of government relations at the Society of Chemical Manufacturers & Affiliates (SOCMA), which represents specialty chemical makers. —GLENN HESS


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