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Sequester Watch: Congress Votes to Protect Military Tuition Assistance and Limit NSF Spending

Congress completed work on a stopgap spending bill on Thursday that includes provisions to restore military Tuition Assistance Programs but also limit spending on political-science research.

The Senate approved two amendments on Wednesday to the bill, known as a continuing resolution, which will finance government operations through the end of the 2013 fiscal year, on September 30. The Senate passed the bill on Wednesday, and the House of Representatives followed suit on Thursday, to avoid the government shutdown that would result if a spending bill were not passed by March 27, when the current continuing resolution expires. The bill now moves to the White House for President Obama’s expected signature.

One amendment—sponsored by Sen. James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, and Sen. Kay Hagan, Democrat of North Carolina—would restore Tuition Assistance Programs that several branches of the armed forces had announced they would suspend as a result of federal spending cuts, known as sequestration, that took effect this month.

The U.S. Marine Corps and the Army were the first to announce the suspension of their programs this month, followed shortly by the Air Force and the Coast Guard. All four branches said they would no longer allow new requests for their Tuition Assistance Programs, as all received steep budget reductions under sequestration. Only the Navy said it would keep its program in place for as long as possible.

Tuition Assistance Programs are available for active-duty service members who are participating in high-school-completion courses and certificate programs, or are working toward a college degree. Service members who take advantage of the benefit can receive up to $4,500 annually for their tuition costs.

“Restoring tuition assistance is absolutely critical to the long-term vitality of our service  members,” said Michael Dakduk, executive director of Student Veterans of America, in a written statement. “Education leads to success, both in uniform and out. By cutting tuition assistance, we set a dangerous precedent in our country that education is not valued in our military.”

The other amendment—proposed by Sen. Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma—would broadly restrict the ability of the National Science Foundation to approve any grants involving political science, unless the agency could certify them “as promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.”

Senator Coburn has criticized the NSF’s spending priorities and sent a letter last week to the foundation’s director, Subra Suresh, that listed a series of projects the senator considered a waste of taxpayer money, including some political-science studies.

The American Political Science Association issued a written statement on Wednesday calling the amendment a “gross intrusion” into the agenda-setting process at the NSF that creates an “exceptionally dangerous slippery slope.”

“Adoption of this amendment demonstrates a serious misunderstanding of the breadth and importance of political-science research for the national interest and its integral place on the nation’s interdisciplinary scientific research agenda,” the statement says. “Singling out any one field of science is shortsighted and misguided, and poses a serious threat to the independence and integrity of the National Science Foundation.”

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