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Hot Bills This Week on OpenCongress

June 5, 2009 - by Donny Shaw

This post by Isabelle Cutting, OpenCongress Research Assistant.

Behind the fairly long shadow cast by growing interest around immigration and continued interest in firearms legislation, here are a handful of bills that have been heating up this week for voters and viewers on OpenCongress. This analysis is based on information from the OpenCongress Battle Royale, which gives an overhead view of what bills, senators, representatives and issues are popular in Congress.

1. HR 1791 – Stopping Trained in America Ph.D.s from leaving the Economy act of 2009 or the STAPLE Act

This bill would offer foreign nationals with a Ph.D. from a U.S. university in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, or mathematics) related field a greater chance at obtaining permanent residency and exempt them from the current numerical caps on H1-B visas.

The angle in which Rep. Jeff Flake [R, AZ-6], the bill’s sponsor, has framed the provision of H-1B visas is not, however, removed from controversy. S. 887, sponsored by Sen. Richard Durbin [D, IL] and Sen. Charles Grassley [R, IA], for example, focuses on limiting the provision of such visas in order to promote and ensure the hiring American workers over their foreign counterparts.

Currently only 65,000 H-1B visas, a category of immigrant visas reserved for highly skilled workers, are available with an additional 20,000 set aside for applicants with a master’s degree or higher from an American institution of higher education. This number was reduced from the previous quota of 195,000 in 2004 making the H1-B visa market a highly competitive arena. Applications this fiscal year, however, have been down from previous cycles. Nevertheless, both proponents and critics to the H1-B visa expansion argue that early figures of such visa applications (which are accepted starting April 1st) do not adequately reflect the appropriateness of the current cap.

2. H.R. 2629 – Coercion is Not Health Care Act

Also gaining interest among voters in light of Congress’s recent work on reforming the U.S. health care system is a somewhat antagonistic bill proposed by Rep. Ron Paul [R, TX-14] in late May. The bill seeks to remove the Federal government’s influence on the decision to purchase or maintain health insurance. It follows from the argument that government interference leads to more expensive health insurance, a financial burden that could motivate insurance providers to turn to “cash-only” options and make it difficult for those relying on government-mandated insurance to find health care. The message of the bill thus is that Congress should reverse the trend of bureaucratized and politicized health insurance and put Americans the decision-making positions of health care.

Along the same vein of argument and introduced on the same day (but not yet viewed as much by the public) Representative Paul also proposed H.R. 2630, the Protect Patients and Physicians Privacy Act.

3. H.R. 2631 – Affordable Gas Price Act

In response to gas prices being on the rise again, this bill, introduced by Rep. Ron Paul [R, TX-14], seeks to reduce the cost of gas as well as the government’s level of involvement in mitigating energy prices. Arguing that Federal fuel taxes are a major contributor to the cost of gasoline, the bill proposes to suspend such taxes whenever average gas prices exceed $3.00 per gallon. It also would repeal the current federal suspension on offshore drilling and encourage oil exploration in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

4. HR 875 – Food Safety Modernization Act

The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009 has also snagged viewers by simultaneously touching on issues such as GMO’s, organic farming, federalism, and that the sponsor of the bill, Rep. Rosa DeLauro [D, CT-3], is the wife of a political strategist tied to Mosanto. The bill seeks to enhance food safety by introducing new administrative bodies and tasks to monitor more closely the production, transportation, and sale of food in the country. The bill would broadly do this by increasing surveillance and inspection capabilities and encouraging data collection and research on food-borne illnesses.

Proponents of the bill interpret it fairly literally by framing it as having the potential to minimize the hazards of foodborne illness. They focus on the bill’s administrative restructuring, namely the standardized safety requirements for domestic and imported foods, the establishment of the Food Safety Administration, and the FDA’s change of name to the Federal Drug and Device Administration.

Critics, recently with a more prominent voice, frame the bill around its farther reaching implications for localized control among agents ranging from organic farmers to state authorities. See Section 202 for registration requirements, which could prove to be debilitating bureaucratic hurdles for some small farmers.

Find more discussion on Congress’s role in food safety here.

5. S. 773 – Cybersecurity Act of 2009

In congruence with the theme of cybersecurity in the news earlier this week, viewers showed interest in the Cybersecurity Act of 2009. This bill signals enhanced government interest and involvement in all things combining security and “cyber” (for which it provides a definition in Section 23).

Along with an advisory panel, the bill would develop a national licensing, certification, and re-certification program for cybersecurity professionals and bring cybersecurity wholly under the government’s scope by declaring it unlawful to provide cybersecurity services without participating in such a program.

Unsurprisingly, the bill’s circulation has aroused the always-contentious debate between personal freedom and security. This bill would indeed allow for the limit or shutdown of Internet traffic to and from Federal government agency systems on the grounds of a “cybersecurity emergency” or the interests of national security. It does not yet, however, discuss how the need such an emergency would be determined of how long affected Internet access would be limited but keep checking up on Congress’s action regarding the bill here.

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