Inside (the Beltway) Scoop

114th Congress Adjourns; Government Funding Extended Until April; President Obama Signs Cures Legislation; Bill Renewing Science Programs Passes House and Senate

The House and Senate recessed for the holiday and are not expected to conduct any additional business for the remainder of the year, effectively adjourning the 114th Congress. Before leaving town, Congress closed out 2016 with a flurry of activity on legislation that affects the biological and biomedical research community.

After weeks of negotiations, Congress approved  another “continuing resolution” (CR) extending funding for federal agencies through April 28, 2017. The updated CR (HR 2028) funds the government at $1.07 trillion, a slight increase above the level ($1.067 trillion) that was included in the prior agreement. In order to keep the total amount of spending within the fiscal year (FY) 2017 budget cap, the legislation contains a 0.19 percent across-the-board cut for all agencies.

Additional spending in the bill includes appropriations to cover operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, support counter-terrorism efforts, provide emergency assistance to repair damage from Hurricane Matthew and recent floods in Louisiana, West Virginia, and Texas, and funds to clean up the contaminated water supply in Flint, Michigan. According to an Appropriations Committee’s press release, the new CR contained no controversial policy provisions known as “riders.”

Commenting on the CR, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) said the April date was to accommodate the Senate’s plans to spend most of January approving nominations for President-Elect Trump’s cabinet. Although the temporary measure keeps the government open for the next several months, Speaker Ryan pledged that the House would “go back to regular order” and consider the unfinished FY 2017 spending bills in February.

Resuming work on that legislation will be critical for agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which will not be able to begin spending on new projects until it has a permanent budget.  Of particular concern to the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) is the two billion increase for biomedical research that was approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee in June. FASEB will reach out to the new Congress in January to urge legislators to quickly pass a budget bill that includes this proposed funding for NIH.

In related news, following the House’s bipartisan approval of the 21st Century Cures Act (HR 34) on November 30, the Senate passed the bill by a 94-5 vote. President Obama signed the legislation into law at a White House ceremony on December 13. As expected, the CR (HR 2028) appropriated $352 million for NIH through the newly-established Innovation Fund that was created by the 21st Century Cures bill.

The Senate approved legislation to strengthen several programs at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other science agencies. The American Innovation and Competitiveness Act (S 3084) was drafted by Senators Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Gary Peters (D-MI) in consultation with their colleagues on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation and House Science, Space, and Technology Committees. Provisions in the bill reaffirm support for NSF’s existing merit review criteria, direct the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Science and Technology Policy to establish an interagency working group to reduce regulatory burden on federally funded researchers, address efforts to improve rigor and transparency in scientific research, and raise the micro-purchase threshold for procurement using NSF funds to $10,000, adjusted periodically to account for inflation. The bill is pending in the House and could be approved in late December during a pro-forma session. FASEB submitted comments on an earlier version of the legislation.

The new session of Congress will convene on January 3, 2017 and will include 3 new elected officials who won run-off elections in Louisiana on December 10. John Kennedy (R-LA) will join the Senate, and Clay Higgins (R-LA-03) and Mike Johnson (R-LA-04) will become members of the House freshman class.