Congress Returns to Washington to Face Deadlines, Same Issues

Congress Returns to Washington to Face Deadlines, Same Issues

Having left town for the month of August for their annual summer break at the close of the debt ceiling debate, Congress returns to Washington, D.C. after Labor Day to continue work on many of the same issues that confronted them before they left.  While the debt ceiling has been raised, and default avoided, the legislation that cut $900 billion and raised the debt limit by $2.4 trillion also included the creation of a “Super Committee” that will have to find an additional $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction, or face $1.2 trillion in straight across the board cuts.  In addition to continued work on deficit reduction, Congress also hopes to work on patent reform, energy legislation, the pending free trade agreements with Korea, Colombia, and Panama, as well as confronting expiring tax provisions, and, of course, passing annual spending bills to keep the government running.

Prior to the August Recess, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), said that the first step the Senate would take in September would be action on a House-passed version of a patent-reform bill. If approved and signed into law, the bill would be the first major overhaul of the U.S. patent system in 60 years.  Both the Senate and House have passed versions of patent legislation, but the two measures differed slightly, setting up another vote in the Senate.  Among other things, the bill would transition the United States to a “first-to-file” patent system, under which patents would be awarded to the inventor who first files an application. The bill also makes changes to the fee system at the Patent and Trademark Office.

Sen. Harry Reid and President Obama have also said that when the Senate returns to Washington in September they want to focus on creating clean-energy jobs.  It’s not clear which legislation they would be supporting to move through the Senate, but Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), were able to pass The Clean Energy Financing Act out of their committee by voice vote, which is no easy task in today’s overly partisan atmosphere. The legislation would revamp the Energy Department's existing loan program to create a separate agency to provide loan guarantees and other financial backing to renewable and other advanced energy technologies that would have trouble obtaining financing through traditional channels. Similar legislation has been a past priority for SEMI.

Although Senate leaders have announced a “path forward” on the free trade agreements (FTAs) upon return from the August recess, the order in which these agreements will be addressed has not been clarified.  In addition to the agreements themselves, the Trade Adjust Assistance (TAA) program is due to be reauthorized. The TAA program, which is designed to assist workers adversely affected by international trade, currently operates with the 2002 funding level and eligibility criteria, as the 2009 expansion expired in February.  President Obama has placed the FTAs in the top tier of job-creation and work-related legislation. Despite the thorny process issues related to enacting the FTAs in tandem with TAA, the President said he believes the bills will receive bipartisan support.

Congress must also work quickly to address its annual commitment to fund the government through the appropriations process.   With all of the focus on the debt ceiling, and now the Super Committee, it’s easy to forget that Congress only has until September 30 to pass the spending bills for FY2012.  With such a short time to complete action on the 12 bills that fund the government, and with only three of these bills having passed the House and none having passed the Senate, it looks as if Congress with have to do a short-term continuing resolution, to keep the government running until they can pass the full measures.  While this is typically a bipartisan effort, lack of ability to reach agreement on a continuing resolution earlier in the year brought the government to brink of a full shutdown, so this is an issue that will continue to be polarizing and one to watch.

All of these other issues will be overshadowed by the work of the 12-member Super Committee which is charged with finding $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction over the next ten years, or face “across-the-board” cuts to all federal funding.  Because of the broad range of issues that the committee may consider, it is likely that some tax issues will be addressed by the Committee.  With the popular R&D tax credit set to expire on December 31, 2011, we may see the Super Committee address this and other non-controversial, but “must pass” legislation in whatever deficit reduction scheme they propose.  Also, with all federal spending on the chopping block, SEMI is working with our partners and member companies to express to policymakers the importance of federal funding for basic science research.

With these and other issues, the SEMI Washington, D.C. office continues to press for the interests of our members and the microelectronics industry.  If you have any questions regarding these issues, or any other public policy inquiries, please contact Jamie Girard, senior manager, public policy at jgirard@semi.org.

September 6, 2012