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Bills, Bills, Bills: Outlook on the legislation before the U.S. Congress

Jun 15

Written by: Grants Office, LLC
Tuesday, June 15, 2010  RssIcon

By Christopher Haight
June 2010 (GO Know)

For grantseekers, writers, and experts, the closest thing to a "Coming Attractions" notification any of us enjoys is the congressional calendar, as the life of any federal grant program begins with a bill. The same "I'm Just a Bill" from the popular School House Rock cartoons isn't just a lesson in U.S. civics, it's the starting point for some of the most anticipated funding of the year.

For annual programs, such as the popular Distance Learning and Telemedicine Program, the key bills to monitor originate from the House and Senate appropriations committees. The presidential administration initiates this process when it presents the budget to Congress with specific funding requests for the coming fiscal year. Although these figures have no immediate impact on funding levels, they provide important insight into federal priorities, including the opportunity for new programs to be established or old programs eliminated.

This year's budgeting process is also unique because the Obama administration announced a spending freeze on discretionary, non-defense related items. The overall cap on this spending does not necessarily translate into a cap on each program individually, as some programs in one area may benefit at the expense of another. The Department of Education in particular, looks to benefit from increased funding under the administration's plans (see "Reforming Our Schools" or "Life After the Recovery Act" for more detail).

Brand new legislation can also introduce new opportunities for grant funding. While there remains relatively little time before the campaign season kicks into high gear, some important items remain on the congressional agenda related to science, energy, and education. Reauthorizations of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (more popular referenced as "No Child Left Behind") due this year would continue many of the highly-sought after grant programs such as the Enhancing Education through Technology (EETT) competitive grants for schools. President Obama's proposed Blueprint for Education Reform offers a series of continued, revised, and new competitive grant programs. Likewise, the America COMPETES Act is due for congressional reauthorization. This $48 billion legislation, currently before the House, would fund many science and technology related programs, mainly in the research and development arena. The original version of the bill would have continued the America COMPETES Act for five years at a cost of $96 billion; however, lawmakers pared it back in order to attract additional support.

The largest new bill left on the agenda related to energy grants is climate change legislation, which passed the House but has not yet been fully considered by the Senate. The bill, introduced by Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) as the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act, includes new grant programs like the Economic Development Climate Change Fund. The Fund would offer $50 million annually in technical assistance and grants directed towards economically-distressed communities for energy-related projects. The proposed bill also would enable federal funding for workforce training in energy fields and alternative energy research.

The rest of the year remains a packed legislative affair, with Congress nearing passage of a financial regulatory bill and possibly considering immigration reform, all during an increasingly heated election year. As with anything subject to the U.S. political process, the annual appropriations and new legislation all remain subject to change before the final text is presented to President Obama for his approval. Nonetheless, staying informed of the status of this legislation is crucial as it directly impacts some of the best-known (and most anticipated) grant programs.

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