Washington Policy Outlook 2011: The View from Capitol Hill

The 2010 elections have wrought big changes in key Congressional committees with interest in innovation policy, technology, and economic development.  The biggest changes come with the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives.  New chairmen and staffs are in place at key committees.  For example, the House Small Business Committee will now be chaired by Rep. Sam Graves (R-MO) who has vowed to weed out waste and abuse in Small Business Adminstration (SBA) programs.  Economic development advocates lost a strong ally with the departure of former Transporatation and Infrastructure Chair James Oberstar (D-MN).  His successor, John Mica (R-FL), is likely to focus most of his efforts on pressing transportation-related issues.    Rep. Harold Rogers (R-KY), the incoming Appropriations Committee chairman, has been a past advocate of Federal economic development programs, but may not have the capability to support them in the face of strong pressures to cut budgets.  Finally, Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX) will chair the House Science and Technology Committee.   Science policy experts expect Hall to focus on basic research, space, and energy issues, and devote less attention than his predecessor to issues such as US competitiveness or STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education.   Meanwhile, over in the the Senate, Democratic committee chairs remain unchanged.

While there has been a great deal of shuffling of leadership posts in the House, the policy impact of these shifts is still uncertain.  Future policy directions are unlikely to be driven by Committee actions.  Instead, a top down process is more likely, where policy directions are affected by larger budget deliberations and by continued sparring between the White House and Congressional Republicans.   At this point, the tea leaves suggest that advocates for Federal innovation and economic development programs should be “cautiously pessimistic.”  Budget pressures and the departure of many key program advocates may mean a tough year ahead. 

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