Inside (the Beltway) Scoop

By | June 30, 2016

Congress Addresses Long-term Outlook for Budget Bills; Bipartisan Legislation Would Increase Investments in Science and Innovation

When lawmakers return to Washington on July 5, they will have nine days to complete work on several critical pieces of legislation before they adjourn for their nearly two-month summer break. Although consideration of fiscal year (FY) 2017 spending bills is likely to be at the top of the legislative agenda, it is not clear how much progress Congress will actually make.

House Appropriations Committee leaders have not announced the schedule yet, but there is speculation that approval of the Labor, Health and Human Services (LHHS) bill that funds the National Institutes of Health (NIH) could take place as early as July 6. To date, the committee has passed ten of the twelve annual spending measures. Failure to complete consideration of the LHHS bill would likely be a great disappointment to subcommittee chairman Tom Cole (R-OK) who has said he wants to provide another significant increase in funding for biomedical research.

The Senate may vote on a package of legislation to accelerate medical innovations that was passed by the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee this spring. The House passed a similar bill (the 21st Century Cures Act, HR 6) in 2015, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) as well as the Obama administration support the effort. HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said, “We are in the midst of discussions between Leader McConnell and Speaker Ryan to finish the job.” Negotiations are ongoing about adding additional funding for NIH to the final bill.

Future increases for the National Science Foundation (NSF) are also envisioned in bipartisan legislation introduced by Senators Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Gary Peters (D-MI). On June 23, they released the text of the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act (S 3084), a bill to reauthorize the expired America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science (COMPETES) Act.

S 3084 affirms NSF’s merit review policies, establishes an inter-agency working group to reduce regulatory burdens on scientists, and eases travel restrictions that have prevented federal agency employees from attending scientific meetings and conferences. The Senate Science, Commerce, and Transportation Committee approved the bill by a voice vote on June 29.

During the debate, an amendment sponsored by Gardner and Peters was adopted to authorize $7.5 billion in funding for NSF in FY 2017 and a four percent increase for the agency in FY 2018. The committee also approved Senator Amy Klobuchar’s (D-MN) amendment to increase the threshold for equipment purchases to $10,000, as recommended by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology and other organizations.

With Congress planning to be in recess for the rest of the summer and most of the fall, further significant legislative activity will be postponed until after the presidential election in November. House leaders acknowledged last week that the long-term outlook for the appropriations bills is uncertain. Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said he expects lawmakers to pass a “continuing resolution” (CR) sometime after Labor Day that will fund the government at current (FY 2016) levels from September 30 until the first week in December. Hoyer added that he hopes his colleagues will use an anticipated post-election day “lame duck” session to agree on an omnibus appropriations bill finalizing the 2017 agency budgets.

Some Republicans have suggested that the CR run through March 2017, leaving the next Congress to resolve any funding disputes—a proposal unlikely to attract any support from Democrats, according to Hoyer. Majority Leader McConnell declined to react to speculation about the length of the CR saying instead that the Senate would keep working on the spending measures.