What does passage of the Infrastructure Bill mean for researchers?

Over the weekend, the House of Representatives broke the legislative logjam over the long-delayed Infrastructure package, passing it on a bipartisan basis. This allowed the bill to be sent to the President’s desk for signing into law. While having only a few pieces for researchers, the infrastructure bill does contain some notable parts for the computing community.

Regular readers will recall that the Senate passed the infrastructure package, called the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, back in August. That was a bipartisan, Senate negotiated bill carefully agreed so that it would pass Congress and become law. However, the House delayed taking up the bill because House leaders were hoping to use it as leverage to get the Senate to pass the Reconciliation spending package. Due to delays in the House crafting that legislation, and the opposition of key Senators to the size and scope of the reconciliation bill, the Senate has yet to take it up. This all created an over two-month delay in Congress passing the infrastructure bill and came close to derailing President Biden’s entire legislative agenda. Faced with likely more delays, Congressional leaders decided to pass the infrastructure bill and consider the reconciliation bill down the road.

As we discussed when it passed the Senate in August, there are a few pieces to the infrastructure bill for the research community, some of particular note to the computing community:

– A five-year, $100 million a year SMART grant program at the Department of Transportation (DOT);
– several intelligent transportation and smart communities pilot programs are established at DOT;
– a new ARPA program (ARPA-Infrastructure) established at DOT;
– an entire title of the bill is dedicated to expanding broadband access; and
– several provisions with regard to cybersecurity, particularly with regard to protecting infrastructure and local governments.

However, this is a traditional infrastructure bill (ie: roads, bridge, etc) and not a vehicle for general research dollars or for scientific infrastructure. The expectations were that a reconciliation spending package would cover that type of funding. The passage of the infrastructure bill, without a corresponding vote on the reconciliation spending, means more money for research is unlikely at the moment. This has little to do with support for research, which is generally quite popular in Congress, and more to with there being great hesitancy among legislators to move another large spending bill.

In terms of good news, Congress closing out the infrastructure package makes it more likely that they will have the bandwidth to consider regular appropriations this calendar year, i.e. Fiscal Year 2022. If so, the National Science Foundation, among other research funding agencies, should do quite well. Movement on these bills is not a given however, as there have been increasing objections voiced by Congressional Republicans on both Appropriations Committees to movement of FY22 legislation and calling for a year-long Continuing Resolution. If Congressional Republicans withhold their support for moving the appropriations bills, the process could be pushed into 2022 or beyond. It’s hard to tell at this point what will happen but the next month will be critical. The current CR expires on December 3rd.

Finally, Congress still has a number of major pieces of legislation on its to-do list. It still has to handle the nation’s debt limit and several pieces of “must pass” legislation, like the yearly defense policy bill. These are not likely to be easy jobs to complete and will be far from bipartisan. While the logjam was cleared with the passage of the infrastructure bill, it could return quickly. We’ll keep track of the situation and report back when new developments happen.

What does passage of the Infrastructure Bill mean for researchers?