Congress Begins the Fiscal Year 2018 Budget Process; Senators Express Concerns About Proposed Cuts for Domestic Agencies; Bipartisan Letter Urges Appropriations Committee to Increase Funding for the National Institutes of Health
Several months behind their normal schedule, the House and Senate appropriations committees have begun the fiscal year (FY) 2018 budget process following the release of the Trump Administration’s spending request on May 23. The late submission of the president’s budget and fundamental differences in fiscal priorities between the White House and Congress will almost certainly lead to a protracted battle throughout the summer and fall. Reaching an agreement on the budget before the October 1 deadline is very unlikely at this point.
Absent a revised agreement that would override the Budget Control Act and suspend sequestration in FY 2018, appropriators are facing an overall spending level that is $4.9 billion below the 2017 level. The majority of the spending reductions will affect non-defense discretionary (NDD) programs including funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF).
Senate Appropriations Committee Vice Chairman Patrick Leahy on May 17 sent a letter to Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi and ranking member Bernie Sanders. He outlined the consequences of having to write appropriations bills that comply with the post-sequestration budget caps which are in addition to the $54 billion in NDD cuts proposed by the Trump Administration. Leahy urged the Senate Budget Committee to negotiate a bipartisan agreement to raise the spending cap for FY 2018 that includes equal increases for defense and non-defense discretionary programs. In addition to the letter from Senator Leahy, the NDD United Coalition sent a similar statement to the budget committee summarizing the impact of reduced spending on non-defense programs, including previous reductions in funding for medical and scientific research. The coalition also participated in a press conference with House Appropriations Committee ranking member Nita Lowey (D-NY) and several other members of Congress to call for increasing the investment in domestic spending.
On the other side of the Capitol, a group of eleven Senate Democrats sent a letter to President Trump expressing extreme concerns about his FY 2018 budget request for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the impact of the proposed cuts on the agency’s ability to implement the 21st Century Cures Act, including advancing biomedical research. The letter urged the president to “listen to both sides of the aisle and drop the proposed cuts to HHS.” It was signed by Senators Patty Murray (WA), Tammy Baldwin (WI), Bob Casey (PA), Richard Durbin (IL), Al Franken (MN), Maggie Hassan (NH), Chris Murphy (CT), Jack Reed (RI), Brian Schatz (HI), Jeanne Shaheen (NH), and Sheldon Whitehouse (RI).
As they have done in previous years, the appropriations subcommittees are holding hearings with cabinet secretaries and agency heads in preparation for developing the 12 bills that compromise the federal budget. Last week, NIH Director Francis S. Collins, MD, PhD testified before the House Labor, Health and Human Services (LHHS) Subcommittee at a hearing that focused on oversight of the nation’s biomedical research enterprise. The NIH Director was warmly received and unanimously praised for his outstanding leadership of the agency. Several LHHS Subcommittee members including Chairman Tom Cole (R-OK) and his Democratic counterpart Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), and Representative Lowey stated their opposition to cutting the NIH budget but did not ask Dr. Collins about the White House proposal. Other issues that were raised during the questions and answers portion of the hearing related to the new Grant Support Index Policy, indirect costs, the use of chimpanzees in research, the impact of the current hiring freeze on NIH, and the Institutional Development Award program.
Another expression of bipartisan support for biomedical research came via a letter organized by Senators Casey and Richard Burr (R-NC) urging the Senate Appropriations Committee to “maintain a strong commitment” to NIH in FY 2018. As of May 19, 51 Senators had added their names to the Casey-Burr document. A similar letter sponsored by Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) asked the Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee to provide at least $8 billion for NSF in 2018, an increase of approximately $600 million. The NSF letter included 29 signatures.