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MIT’s Graduate Student Council (GSC) recently added national policy to its otherwise campus-based advocacy agenda, pushing for tax exemption of graduate student stipends, open access to federally funded published research, and higher caps on H1-B visas for advanced-degree holders to members of Congress earlier this fall.

By engaging in national lobbying efforts and making plans to help draft a House bill focusing specifically on tax exemptions of graduate student stipends, the GSC has taken steps to integrate national-level policy into its standard itinerary ­— a task that President Alex Hamilton Chan said has not been attempted in previous years.

“The GSC is moving toward looking at national legislation because a lot of grad student welfare stems from this,” Chan said.

According to the GSC platform, both graduate students and the nation at large would benefit if any of these majoring lobby issues were implemented.

By making graduate student stipends tax exempt ­— as they were before Tax Reform Act of 1986 — the GSC says that students could save hundreds of dollars a month, encouraging more individuals to pursue much-needed advanced degrees.

Lifting the cap on H1-B visas could likewise help the nation to hire more skilled professionals in the US, which would in turn create more jobs for the economy.

The GSC also felt that the pending Federal Research Public Access Act of 2009 (S. 1373) was worth lobbying for. By making federally funded research over $100 million dollars open access, it would “enhance advanced research access and ensure that taxpayer-funded research is available to those who paid for it.”

MIT’s GSC was recently recognized for its work, being nominated by the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students (NAGPS) for the 2009 “Graduate/Professional Student Organization of the Year.”

GSC Execs Lobby in Washington

Executive members of MIT’s GSC travelled to Washington, D.C. to lobby for graduate student stipend tax exemptions, lifting the H1-B visa cap, and implementing open access publication policies for federally funded research as part of the NAGPS’s annual “Legislative Action Days” from last September 30 to October 2.

“This is the first time we’ve done such a comprehensive lobbying effort on a national level,” Chan said.

Chan, Vice President Kevin A. McComber G, and Alex J. Evans G represented MIT’s GSC lobbying interests at the annual event and independently presented their support for the three issues to the offices of eleven Congressmen.

The GSC said it tried to aim its efforts at national lawmakers either from the New England area or active in education policy.

Additionally, Chan said the GSC “talked to [offices of] Republicans and Democrats” because he felt that the GSC’s lobbying efforts were based on “truly bipartisan issues.”

Among the offices addressed were those of Congressmen John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), C. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio), John F. Tierney (D-Mass.), Michael E. Capuano (D-Mass., and representing MIT’s district), Thomas E. Petri (R-Wis.), and Ronald J. Kind (D-WI).

The group was also able to arrange an in-person meeting with Senator Sherrod C. Brown (D-Ohio).

The GSC team spoke of doing extensive background research — reviewing and completing data from recent studies — to prepare their platform for the meetings, which lasted “usually around 40 minutes or an hour” according to Chan.

Several other universities also participated in NAGPS’s “Legislative Action Days,” but Chan said MIT’s group “met more senators than any other college in the nation and really took the lead.”

Platform on Advocacy Issues

The source of the GSC’s lobbying initiatives came from NAGPS’s list of suggested topics, which also included resources and white papers for topics such as health care and student loan reform.

Chan said the GSC chose to focus on the stipend tax exemption, open access publications, and H1-B visa reform compared to the other suggested issues because they were among the most relevant to graduate student life at MIT and best aligned with the current legislative activity on Capital Hill.

According to Evans, “$250–300 a month is the amount of graduate student stipend that goes to taxes,” on average.

By returning graduate stipends to their former federal tax-exempt status, the GSC told congressmen in a statement that the U.S. “could better meet the demands of growing sectors requiring highly-skilled individuals” by encouraging more students to pursue a PhD.

“Before 1986, grad students’ stipends were tax exempt.” Chan said. “What we are advocating [for] is to go back to that.”

Current law says only 65,000 H1-B visa statuses may be issued per fiscal year, and Chan said the GSC “basically wants to have this quota lifted.”

The H1-B visa allows for the temporary employment of foreign workers in specialty occupations, such as those found in math, science, and engineering. By altering or removing this cap, the GSC argues that national legislation could “increase overall employment opportunities in the U.S. and reduce jobs lost to other countries, especially in the technology sector.”

McComber also pointed out that “one of the big expenses [for MIT libraries] is journal subscriptions,” making federally funded research open access appealing to MIT grad students and taxpayers alike.

“Publishers are commanding a very unhealthy sum in this area,” said Chan.

Solidifying their platform on these lobbying issues, the GSC signed “The Student Statement on the Right to Research” on the Federal Research Public Access Act and plans to continue lobbying efforts in the spring.

Bill to Make Stipend Tax Exempt

Since travelling to Washington for their lobby efforts, the GSC has also outlined plans to help write a bill that would return graduate stipends to their former federal tax-exempt status.

Evans, Chan, and McComber have begun work on drafting the bill with guidance from MIT’s Washington Office.

The bill will be based on a more broad education policy legislation introduced by former House representative Philip S. English (R-Pa.).

Currently, Evans says that the tax exemptions called for in the bill will include all levels of graduate students (masters and PhD students) from all academic fields, regardless of stipend source.

The GSC hopes to make their own version of the bill more successful by focusing solely on the stipend tax exemption and gaining the support from House members in taxation and education related committees.

As part of their tentative legislative drafting plans, the GSC execs hope to have a final draft of the bill ready for when they return to Washington next spring.