Inside (the Beltway) Scoop

By | December 1, 2016

Congress Struggles with Decisions on Government Funding; Cures Legislation Passes House; FASEB-Led Effort Protects Funding for Research Grants

Despite three weeks of negotiations, members of Congress are still no closer to reaching an agreement on how to fund the government once the current “continuing resolution” (CR) expires on December 9.

House Speaker Paul Ryan’s plan to vote on another CR keeping federal agencies operating through March 31, 2017, at current funding levels has run into opposition from Senate leadership who would prefer that the temporary funding measure last through May in order to give the chamber enough time to consider President-Elect Donald Trump’s cabinet nominations beginning in January.

In a private meeting on November 30, House Republicans failed to reach consensus on whether the CR should be extended beyond March. They scheduled a follow-up conversation to take place on December 2. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) acknowledged the delay, telling reporters that the text of any agreement will not be released until the week of December 5.

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Representative Tom Cole at FASEB’s 2016 Public Service Award ceremony, March 2, 2016.

The possibility of postponing action on the 2017 spending bills even further was met with criticism from some legislators. Tom Cole (R-OK), Chairman of the House Labor, Health and Human Services (LHHS) Appropriations Subcommittee said, “This Congress shouldn’t push off its responsibilities. It’s our job to write the 2017 fiscal spending plan … instead we are going to pass a continuing resolution probably through the end of April. And frankly, when we get there, if we’re not careful, temptation will be let’s continue this through the end of the fiscal year, September 30th. I think that’s sloppy appropriating and budgeting.”

Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) delivered an angry speech on the Senate floor stating, “Put simply, this cockamamie idea, this abrogation of our responsibilities called a continuing resolution would short change American troops.” Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) echoed McCain’s comments noting that a CR is “the lazy way to fund the government.”

Despite this vocal opposition, it does not appear that any attempt will be made to complete work on the 2017 budget this year. Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin (D-IL) predicted that a multi-month CR is “likely to have enough votes to move through the Senate” and added, “but it’s going to be devastating in a lot of respects.”

Francis Collins, PhD

Francis Collins, PhD

One official who agrees with Senator Durbin is Francis Collins, MD, PhD, Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Speaking at an event in Washington, Collins said a CR would be “an extremely unfortunate and painful outcome for biomedical research because of the uncertainty it would create throughout the research enterprise.” Collins continued, “The idea that we might not know what funds we have to spend until the fiscal year is half over, again you can’t just turn a dial and suddenly figure out how wisely to spend significant resources. If you really want biomedical research to flourish, what you need is sustainable, predictable growth in research support.”

A CR also jeopardizes the $2 billion increase for biomedical research that was approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee this summer.

In better news for the research community, the House of Representatives this week passed a revised version of the 21st Century Cures bill (HR 34) by a vote of 392-26. The legislation replaces HR 6, which was approved by the House in July 2015. HR 34 includes a new Innovation Fund that would provide NIH with a total of $4.79 billion over ten years (2017–2026) to support specific projects including the Precision Medicine Initiative, the BRAIN Initiative, Vice President Biden’s “cancer moonshot,” and regenerative medicine research using adult stem cells. Money from the Innovation Fund must be allocated annually through the LHHS Appropriations bill and cannot be used for any other purposes. The revised cures act also includes several provisions to reduce regulatory burden for researchers and authorizes NIH to continue efforts to promote programs and policies that provide opportunities for new researchers.

Senate consideration of HR 34 is expected the week of December 5. The White House issued a Statement of Administration Policy indicating that President Obama will sign the bill if it is passed by the Senate.

sbirAnother piece of legislation on the way to the White House also includes language important to the research community. The National Defense Authorization Act contains a five-year reauthorization of the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer Program (STTR) programs with no increase in “set-aside”— the budget percentage federal science agencies such as NIH and the National Science Foundation must allocate to grants for small businesses. Prior versions of the SBIR/STTR reauthorization would have forced agencies to divert a larger portion of their funding exclusively to grantees from small businesses, resulting in fewer research opportunities for investigators at universities. The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology led the effort to urge Congress to block the increase in the set-aside in order to protect funding for openly competitive, merit-reviewed research grants.

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