Here comes a new Congress – What can psychology expect?

Legislation on budget, Affordable Care Act repeal, and more on tap

Members of the 115th Congress were sworn in on January 3, 2017, and lost no time getting to work. There are seven new senators, including five Democrats and two Republicans (48 Democrats and 52 Republicans in total). The House will welcome 55 new members-- 26 Democrats and 29 Republicans (194 Democrats, 241 Republicans, total). Typically the beginning of a new Congress involves the approval of caucus rules, organization of committees, planning of hearings and introduction of legislation. The highest-profile bills will be the lower-numbered bills -- S. 1 is a budget bill that would kickstart repeal of the Affordable Care Act (more on that effort below). While we don’t yet know what H.R. 1 will be, we do know about some of the legislation that is coming our way.

Science funding -- Congress punted the issue of Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 funding in December, approving a Continuing Resolution to fund governmental programs through April 28, 2017. Federal departments are largely in a holding pattern, unsure of what their final allocations will be. The House and Senate Appropriations Committees drafted and reported all of the FY 2017 funding bills, but none passed both houses of Congress. A variety of issues (e.g. shrinking budget caps, controversial amendments) have made it more difficult to garner enough votes to pass appropriations bills through both houses, and as a result, last year’s business could consume time and attention that the congressional majority could more productively spend on new legislation and priorities. 

The easier way out is for the majority leadership to develop a longer CR. Usually CRs include much less detail (they are normally built for speed of passage) so the committees’ prior work to augment some agencies and reduce others may not be included. That’s not good news for agencies like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that were on track to receive significant increases. 

The American Psychological Association and fellow science advocacy organizations continue to work toward FY 2017 increases in spending for the NIH, Veterans Administration, National Science Foundation and other agencies, but the wild card this year is the new administration moving into the White House on January 20. Although Congress is a co-equal branch of government and needn’t accede to White House priorities, generally at the dawn of a new administration, there would be some deference to the new president’s spending priorities.  But we don’t yet know what those are.

Budget process – You may recall that Congress in 2011 passed a sweeping Budget Control Act (BCA) that included not only ten years’ worth of increasingly rigorous overall spending caps, but also an enforcement mechanism called sequestration-- enforced cuts to defense and non-defense discretionary program budgets in the event Congress overshoots the spending limitations.  Congress may choose to pass legislation to override those caps or negotiate budget proposals that include revenues as a work-around (as they have done several times since the BCA was passed).   

APA will advocate in favor of an overall budget fix and an end to sequestration, even as we encourage Congress to maintain the BCA’s parity in treatment of defense and non-defense accounts, so that neither side of the discretionary budget bears a disproportionate share of cuts, if cuts should occur.

Affordable Care Act – One of the top priorities of the Republican-controlled Congress and the incoming Trump Administration has been the repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA, aka Obamacare).  Recall that Republicans have held over 60 votes to attempt to either repeal or roll back parts of the law.  In December, APA and its affiliated APA Practice Organization wrote a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) asking them not to allow repeal of the ACA without replacing it with legislation to ensure that all Americans have insurance coverage that includes access to comprehensive mental health, behavioral health and substance use services. APA also wrote a letter to the incoming Administration about recommendations for federal health care policy reform to meet the treatment needs of those with mental and substance use disorders.  It is important that all advocacy organizations express their views quickly, because if Congress uses reconciliation procedures to speed a repeal effort, legislation could reach the White House as early as the end of February.

We will share details about budgets, appropriations, confirmation hearings and other developments as the new Congress progresses.  We hope you have resolved in 2017 to keep a close eye on federal science and health policy issues and to get involved, or remain active, in advocacy on behalf of psychology and those who benefit from psychology. The stakes have never been higher.  Keeping reading this blog and the Psychological Science Agenda, and follow us on Twitter (@APAScience).