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    The Six Biggest Science and Tech Issues Facing Congress This Year

    Written by

    Grace Wyler


    After reaching a new nadir of productivity in 2013, Congress kicked off a legislative session this week with a packed science and technology policy agenda. Between revelations of the NSA’s broad domestic spying powers, ongoing budget uncertainty, and the specter of climate change, plenty of issues will be vying for members’ attention in 2014, promising a flurry of contentious political jockeying going into this year’s midterm elections.

    Of course, this is Congress that we’re talking about, so it's unlikely that we will see any marquee legislative battles beyond the usual fiscal bickering. After three years of putting science and technology on the back burner, neither party has a clear set of policies, and election-year politics are likely to shape the already limited agenda. Lawmakers have said, for instance, that they do not plan to take up any major legislation on energy or environment, and President Obama's expected executive orders on climate change are unlikely to be followed up by decisive action in Congress. Debate over major tech issues, most notably the use of unmanned aerial systems, will also likely take place outside of the Capitol Building.   

    Still, there are some questions that Washington will have to address in 2014. Here are the most important science and tech issues on Congress’s to-do list:

    Debate over the NSA is just beginning. Image via Wikimedia Commons

    NSA Reform: Obviously the big question for 2014 is how Congress will act to rein in the NSA’s controversial surveillance programs, including the bulk collection of virtually all American phone records. The calls for aggressive reforms have gained momentum among a coalition of civil liberties activists and tech executives over the past six months, and were recently galvanized by a federal court ruling that declared the agency’s metadata collection is likely unconstitutional. On Friday, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul filed a class-action lawsuit against the Obama administration over the NSA’s spying practices, and other members of Congress have pledged to take action at the legislative level. So far, though, it’s not clear how far that action will go.

    A lot will depend on President Obama’s response to the reforms suggested by a presidential review panel in December. According to the Los Angeles Times, the President is planning his own package of reforms, which will likely include putting a public lawyer on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and shifting the NSA’s bulk metadata storage to a private partner. Given that leaders of both chambers have typically deferred to Obama on intelligence issues, this announcement will likely influence how NSA reform legislation moves forward in Congress, where members are divided between a stringent overhaul of the spy agency’s metadata collection programs and more tepid reforms suggested by the NSA’s defenders.

    Science needs money too. Image via Flickr/IRRI photos

    Science Funding: Between the budget sequestration and last fall’s government shutdown, 2013 was a rollercoaster for US scientists, wreaking havoc on federally-funded research projects after years of steady spending cuts. While the bipartisan budget deal that Congress passed before the Christmas recess provides some relief for the sequester pain, lawmakers now have just two weeks to pass an actual spending bill, or bills, to determine how much money each agency gets and which priorities get funding. That gives scientists very little time to make their case to lawmakers, and given the general animosity to government science programs among House Republicans, the outlook is uncertain at best.

    Asteroid Retrieval: Also in regards to funding, Congress still has to pass a NASA authorization bill to recommend funding priorities for space exploration. Both the House and the Senate have their own versions of the bill, with different priorities and spending levels. But the biggest differences are over funding for NASA’s Asteroid Retrieval Mission, a controversial program that  aims to bring a small near-earth asteroid into lunar orbit by 2025. Obama is an enthusiastic supporter of the program, which will take the US one step closer to sending humans to an asteroid. But the House’s NASA authorization explicitly bans the program, setting the stage for a partisan battle over space exploration in 2014.

    A protester against the Keystone XL project. Image via Flickr/maisa_nyc

    The Keystone XL Pipeline: On the energy and climate change front, the biggest question in 2014 is whether the Obama administration will finally make a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, entering its fifth year of regulatory and political purgatory. Environmental groups have long since coalesced around their opposition to the project, which will transport crude oil from the Canadian tar sands to Oklahoma and then on to the Gulf of Mexico. But the GOP has hammered Obama over the delays, and House Republicans plan to make the pipeline a centerpiece of their energy and job creation agenda in 2014. Any final decision is unlikely to come before the spring, after the State Department releases its new environmental impact report. With midterm elections around the corner, though, don’t be surprised if additional delays punt the Keystone XL question into 2015.

    Patent Trolls: The growing problem of patent trolling moved to the top of Washington’s tech policy agenda last year, and all three branches of government are set to tackle the issue in 2014. In a rare display of bipartisanship last month, members of the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favor of legislation to rein in abusive patent litigation, and the Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to move forward on its own bill early this year.

    The big issue now is whether the final legislation will include an expansion of the “covered business method,” or CBM, an expedited process that allows the Patent Office to get rid of low-grade patents, the preferred vehicle for patent trolls. The provision was removed from the House bill in response to aggressive lobbying from Microsoft and IBM, but patent reform supporters hope it will be included in a more aggressive Senate reform package. New York’s powerful Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer supports strengthening CBM, and has promised a fight to make sure it makes it into the Senate bill.

    The FCC's Tom Wheeler needs to make some decisions on the open internet. Image via Flickr/Luis Paniagua

    Net Neutrality: This year is shaping up to be a very busy one for Tom Wheeler, Obama's new Federal Communications Commission chairman. A former telecom investor and lobbyist, Wheeler has spent his first months on the job reassuring tech policy advocates that he will be an independent voice on the commission, demonstrating a surprisingly hands-on approach to dealing with the public and Congress. But he will likely get his first major test this month, when the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals issues its expected ruling on the FCC’s net neutrality rules, which set the administration’s guidelines for an open internet.

    Already, analysts are anticipating a loss for the FCC, which would leave Wheeler to decide whether to relitigate the issue and spend precious time and political capital in a protracted battle with House Republicans. Although Wheeler insists that he is a strong supporter of net neutrality, some of his remarks have been more ambiguous. However he proceeds, the decision is likely to shape his relationships on Capitol Hill and set the tone for other major policy debates, including that over the upcoming spectrum incentive auctions set to take place in the beginning of 2015.


    Top image via Flickr/David Baron