SWE’s 2021 Advocacy Round-Up

As 2021 comes to a close, a global pandemic once again affects end-of-year holiday plans as the Omicron variant rapidly spreads across the globe.
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In Washington, DC, Congress has left town for the remainder of the year, and Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) has said he cannot support the White House’s Build Back Better Act—a proposal that has been negotiated and renegotiated throughout the year. The announcement and its effect on the legislation will become clearer in January, but elements of the package—such as the child care tax credit, family and medical leave benefits, and universal pre-k—are important to women in the STEM workforce.

While the Build Back Better Act’s prospects are questionable, year end always provides an opportunity to look at what activity there has been on SWE policy priorities. Congress did pass, and the president did sign, a bipartisan infrastructure package that will keep engineers nationwide busy.

The STEM Opportunities Act and the Combating Sexual Harassment in Science Act have been included in the United States Innovation and Competition Act (USICA)—a bipartisan bill that passed the Senate in June. USICA is an extensive legislative plan that proposes investing $220 billion in basic and advanced research; education and training programs in artificial intelligence, semiconductors, quantum computing, advanced communications, biotechnology and advanced energy; regional technology hubs; a supply chain crisis-response program; and various STEM education programs, among other initiatives. It’s a big bill. Through the debate and amendment process on the floor of the Senate, other provisions important to STEM advocates were added. They include rural STEM education program investments, efforts to expand access to K-12 computer science, and Postsecondary STEM pathway grants. While SWE and other STEM stakeholders are excited about the prospect of seeing this bill enacted, it is likely that the process of negotiating the Senate-passed bill with House lawmakers, who have passed the National Science Foundation for the Future Act and the Department of Energy for the Future Act, will begin in early 2022. SWE is monitoring the process and talking to staff about the provisions it supports.

In March of this year, hundreds of SWE members met with Congressional offices to discuss policy priorities that support women in STEM and engineering as part of SWE’s 2021 Capitol Hill Day (CHD). One of SWE’s highest legislative priorities during those conversations was the STEM RESTART Act. There’s good news and bad news about the proposal. The good news? The bill has a House companion this year. Senators Jacky Rosen (D-NV) and Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS) were joined by Representatives Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA) and James Baird (R-IN) in introducing the bill in the House in April, after SWE representatives visited with lawmakers asking for a House companion. That makes the bill bipartisan and bicameral this Congress! The bad news? SWE has been talking to staff often about how the bill might move forward. SWE and other allies continue to push for its enactment, and are hopeful there might be progress next year. Patience is in order, but it will be a top ask for SWE’s Congressional Outreach Days in the spring of 2022.

As for other legislation SWE has been watching, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act  was approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee this year. The bill, which was among the bills SWE CHD participants supported in their March conversations, passed the House in May. Advocates are asking Senate leadership to put the bill on the floor in that chamber as soon as possible. In disappointing news for SWE, the Paycheck Fairness Act—which the House passed in April—was not approved by the Senate, when it was presented for consideration in June.

There was another encouraging development in the Senate. Longtime SWE ally Senator Jacky Rosen (D-NV) and Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) established a Senate Women in STEM Caucus. That means both the House and Senate have a venue for examining the issues facing females in the STEM workforce. SWE intends to help them do just that in 2022.

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