Inside (the Beltway) Scoop

By | February 11, 2015

President Sends Budget Request to Congress; Appropriations Committees Announce Deadlines for Fiscal Year 2016 Requests; Bills Introduced to Increase Funding for Biomedical Research

President Barack Obama released his fiscal year FY 2016 budget on February 2, providing more detail about the proposals he outlined in his State of the Union speech. The president proposed a seven percent increase in discretionary spending, $74 billion more than allowed under the Budget Control Act caps after sequestration. Included in the total are new investments in research, education, training, and infrastructure in order to accelerate and sustain economic growth and competitiveness. As expected, the budget proposes to reverse the pending sequestration cuts for defense and non-defense programs by closing tax loopholes and eliminating ineffective programs.

President Obama’s request for increased spending and his suggestions for how to replace the sequestration cuts were met with mixed reactions from Capitol Hill. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) sharply criticized the proposal stating, “As he did in his budget request last year, the President is asking for billions in additional spending without any realistic way of paying for it.” Thad Cochran (R-MS), Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, noted, “The President has the right to propose all manner of new spending and tax increases in his budget request, but I think a Republican-led Congress will insist on greater budget discipline.”

Support for the President’s budget came from Senate Appropriations Committee ranking member Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) who praised Obama for proposing to end sequestration. Representative Nita Lowey (D-NY), Mikulski’s House counterpart, also expressed enthusiasm for the Obama request stating, “I am particularly pleased by President Obama’s proposals to increase substantially our investments in medical research and development; roads and bridges; and early childhood education and child care.”

The delivery of the president’s budget to Capitol Hill represents the beginning of the process of developing the 12 individual spending bills for FY 2016. Over the next few months, the House and Senate appropriations committees will hold hearings to review the agency funding requests and solicit input from members of Congress about their spending priorities. On January 30, the House Appropriations Committee announced the deadlines and instructions for representatives to submit the “programmatic requests” that are a key factor in determining the funding level for each agency.

In related news, Chairman Cochran offered an optimistic assessment about the outlook for completing work on the FY 2016 budget. Speaking to reporters, Cochran said that he is willing to work with the White House on the spending bills to ensure that they do not face veto threats later in the year.

Funding for biomedical research is also on the minds of several members of Congress who recognize that the FY 2016 spending limits could significantly limit the appropriations committees’ ability to provide a large increase for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In an attempt to find alternative sources of funding for NIH outside of the regular appropriations process, Representatives Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Brian Higgins (D-NY), and Peter King (R-NY) introduced the Accelerating Biomedical Research Act (HR 531). This bill is similar to a proposal sponsored by former Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) and would create a special adjustment to the current discretionary spending caps in order to increase funding for NIH. Under HR 531, the NIH budget could be raised by ten percent above the appropriated level in fiscal years 2016 and 2017 and approximately six percent each year thereafter through 2021. According to DeLauro, HR 531 “will allow Congress to restore the purchasing power of NIH’s funding to what it would have been if it had kept up with inflation since 2003.” On January 29, Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) introduced S 318, the companion to the DeLauro bill. The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) supports both versions of the Accelerating Biomedical Research Act.

Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) is sponsoring legislation similar to the DeLauro and Mikulski bills. The American Cures Act (S 289) would authorize an annual increase of five percent plus inflation (indexed to the gross domestic product) for NIH, the Centers for Disease Control, the Department of Defense Health Program, and the Veterans Medical and Prosthetics Research Program through a budget cap adjustment. Durbin noted that the increases provided in S 289 represent a steady, long-term investment that “would allow the agencies to plan and manage strategic growth while maximizing efficiencies.” FASEB sent a letter to Senator Durbin endorsing the American Cures Act.

A third bill, sponsored by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), proposes to use funds collected from pharmaceutical companies to support increased investments in biomedical research. The Medical Innovation Act (S 320) would require companies accused of breaking the law who choose to enter into settlement agreements with the federal government to dedicate a small portion of their annual profits over five years to fund research at NIH.

Two congressional committees are also developing bills that will impact NIH. House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) released a “discussion draft” of the 21st Century Cures proposal that has been anticipated for several months (see related story). FASEB is reviewing the 21st Century Cures bill and will submit feedback about the proposal to the Energy and Commerce Committee within the next few weeks.

On the other side of the Capitol, the Senate Health Education and Pensions (HELP) Committee launched “a bipartisan initiative to examine the process for getting safe treatments, devices and cures to patients and the roles of the Food and Drug Administration and NIH in that process.” The committee will convene hearings next month to review how drugs and medical devices are developed and examine policy changes that will support medical innovation. A bill similar to the 21st Century Cures Act may be considered by the committee later this year. Last month, HELP Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) released “Innovation for Healthier Americans: Identifying Opportunities for Meaningful Reform to Our Nation’s Medical Product Discovery and Development,” a report that “identifies the inefficiencies that stand in the way of a modern development and review process.” The senators are requesting feedback on their report by late February as part of the committee’s new initiative.