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SWE Public Policy Update: The 118th U.S. Congress

The 118th U.S. Congress is entering its second half. What has it done? What’s left for 2024?
Photo of the Capitol building in Washington D.C.

Happy new year!

The Society of Women Engineers (SWE) advocated for a number of policy issues in 2023 and will continue to do so in 2024. SWE’s policy priorities continue to include the importance of supporting early exposure to STEM fields in K-12 education, the need for a more diverse STEM teaching workforce, how crucial it is to invest in minority-serving colleges and universities that produce an astonishing number of STEM graduates and educators, supporting women in the STEM workforce, and the importance of investing in education and research.

Save the date and come to Washington, D.C.
SWE members who join SWE in our Congressional Outreach Days on March 20- 21 will share these priorities with lawmakers themselves. More information will be available in early February.

It’s 2024, and the second session of the 118th U.S. Congress convened earlier this month after a lengthy holiday break. They returned to a number of items left undone in 2023. Chief among them is federal funding and the passage of spending bills that fund the federal government for FY24 — the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, 2023. In recent weeks, advocates for every cause were urging lawmakers to invest adequately in education, research and other programs; in fact, SWE joined over 1100 organizations to sign a letter, saying, in part, “We strongly urge Congressional leadership to…finish the FY24 appropriations process and adopt the bipartisan Senate funding framework as a starting point for final negotiations.” New Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-LA) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) announced a proposed agreement in January that would do just that.

The deal sets total spending at the level agreed to last year in the Fiscal Responsibility Act (FRA), which is also the level Senate appropriators assumed when they developed their bipartisan bills last year. Total spending would be set at $886.3 billion for defense spending and $772.7 billion for nondefense investments. The nondefense figure includes $69 billion spending agreed to, but not written into, the FRA. While the math and machinations are complicated, the deal essentially means that FY24 spending levels for education and other domestic programs will be the same as FY23. So, any programmatic increases will require offsetting cuts. What’s next? The leaders of the 12 subcommittees that decide funding levels for federal programs will work to put together bills before the temporary spending bill that is keeping the government open expires in March.

It isn’t surprising that the 118th Congress has been an unproductive one — that often happens during periods of a divided government. It is at its midpoint and has passed 34 laws to date, compared to the 117th Congress which passed 362. Regardless, it has considered topics important to SWE and its members.

Artificial intelligence (AI) has been the focus of a number of hearings, briefings and pieces of legislation in the 118th Congress so far. Senator Schumer declared the topic so important that it required a new expert stakeholder engagement process versus traditional public hearings. Last summer, he unveiled a framework for the development of legislation to address the issues the technology provokes. SWE and like-minded advocates have a number of concerns, including bias in the underlying technology and the effective teaching about the technology in K-12 classrooms, as well as the use of it among educators. The issues are manifold and complicated, and SWE will continue to monitor them.

The STEM RESTART Act continues to be a top legislative priority, and SWE executive director and CEO Karen Horting was on Capitol Hill in October touting its importance. The bill hasn’t made significant progress this Congress, despite support from Democrats and Republicans in both the House and the Senate, but SWE members coming to Washington, D.C., in March will once again press lawmakers to support it. Advocates hope the bill can be incorporated into conversations regarding how to update the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, as well as those around how the country needs to build the STEM workforce needed to fulfill the promise of the CHIPS and Science Act. In a recent webinar on the topic of returnships, Representative Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA) and Horting urged supporters to grow cosponsorship for the bill.

Updating Title IX regulations is long overdue. In December, the U.S. Department of Education announced that it plans to issue the much-anticipated revised rules in March 2024. When President Joe Biden was elected, he said he would “immediately” overturn changes to Title IX made by the Trump administration, which narrowed the definition of sexual harassment and added new measures to ensure the due process rights of students accused of misconduct, among other changes. Biden also said his administration would reinstate 2011 guidance that instructed institutions to investigate and adjudicate all student reports of sexual misconduct. Advocates are still waiting and hoping that the March timeline holds while hundreds of victims feel the current regulations are not serving them. SWE has been among the groups calling for expedient action.

Other issues that have been priorities for SWE, including pay equity and paid family and medical leave, have seen some attention — but neither has made much progress. Regardless, it is important to convey the importance of these and other issues, even during times of divided government. Advocacy requires persistence, and SWE and its like-minded allies are nothing if not persistent.


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