Inside (the Beltway) Scoop

By | April 5, 2017

Congress Faces Critical Budget Deadline; White House Submits Additional List of Spending Cuts; Appropriators Question Secretary Price About Proposed Reductions in Research Funding

Members of Congress left Capitol Hill on April 6 for a two-week recess, but they face a major budget deadline when they return to Washington on April 24. Funding for nearly all federal agencies expires on April 28, and legislators must either extend the current “continuing resolution” (CR) or pass the unfinished fiscal year (FY) 2017 spending bills.

In good news for the research community, House and Senate appropriators have completed negotiations on an omnibus spending package that is likely to be considered after the break, according to Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Other members of the Appropriations Committee echoed the Chairman’s comments including Labor, Health and Human Services (LHHS) Subcommittee Chairman Tom Cole (R-OK) who said his panel and its Senate counterpart have agreed to their portion of the omnibus. Cole indicated that an increase in funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has been included in the spending bill.

House and Senate leadership indicated that votes on the omnibus bill would take place ahead of the April 28 deadline. They also dismissed any notion that there would be a government shutdown. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) told CBS, “We’re not going to have a government shutdown; the president doesn’t want to shut down the government.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) also dismissed the idea of a lapse in funding and said “we anticipate being able to finish that [omnibus] that last week before the time runs out.” McConnell added that Republicans have no desire to see the CR extended for the rest of the fiscal year either.

Although the text of the FY 2017 omnibus has not been revealed, it is not expected to include the White House’s request for $18 billion in cuts to non-defense discretionary agencies to partially pay for a supplemental funding request for the Department of Defense submitted by the Trump Administration last month. On March 28, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) sent Congress a list specifying which agencies and programs should be cut to meet the $18 billion target. The OMB document included a $350 million reduction in funding for National Science Foundation research projects and a $1.182 billion cut to grants supported by NIH. Funding for the Institutional Development Award program at NIH would also be cut by $50 million under the administration’s proposal.

House and Senate Appropriations Committee leaders immediately rejected the proposed cuts for FY 2017 as well as those previously proposed for  FY 2018. Of the $1.2 billion cut to NIH proposed by the White House for FY 2017, Cole said, “Not going to happen.” Lamar Alexander (R-TN), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, noted that the request was coming too late in the budget process adding, “The responsibility for appropriations is with the Congress and we respect the president. He suggested some things, and of course we’ll look at them, but we’ll write the budget.”

Once Congress completes action on the 2017 budget, the Appropriations Committees will turn their attention to the FY 2018 budget. The White House’s detailed spending request for FY 2018 is expected to be released in mid-May. Hearings on the 2018 budget have already begun. On March 29, Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price appeared before the House LHHS Appropriations Subcommittee and defended the Trump administration’s proposed $6 billion cut to medical research saying the NIH budget is plagued by unnecessary expenses. “Our goal is to fashion a budget that focuses on the things that work, that tries to decrease the areas where there are either duplications or redundancies or waste, and whether indeed we can get a larger return for the American taxpayer,” Price said. Republicans and Democrats expressed great concern about the proposal and repeatedly questioned Price on the reasoning behind the proposed cuts.

Given that legislators will be in their states and districts for the next few weeks, this is a great time for the scientific community to build support for the omnibus spending bill and for the federal science agencies ahead of the vote at the end of the month. The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology has a variety of tools on its website to help scientists request a meeting with their members of Congress at home, locate the date and time of upcoming town hall meetings, submit a letter or opinion piece to a local newspaper, and communicate with elected officials on Twitter and other social media platforms. Advocates for research funding are also encouraged to reach out to their friends, family members, and collaborators to urge them to contact their Senators and Representatives as well.