Pre-election Spending Battles Continue on Capitol Hill

July 30, 2012

by Paula Skedsvold

As Congress nears its August recess and with few days left in the legislative calendar before the November elections, it appears once again that a Continuing Resolution (CR) will be needed to fund the government as it moves into the new fiscal year beginning on October 1, 2012. A CR that provides funding for six months at levels agreed to in the debt-ceiling deal is expected to be unveiled by early September. With an upcoming election, lawmakers want to avoid a government shutdown and postpone the rest of the battles over spending cuts.  

Meanwhile, there are plenty of bruises from recent battles on spending. Despite the decade-long caps on spending that were set in place in the Budget Control Act, the U.S. House has been working from a much smaller overall number than the U.S. Senate, resulting in individual appropriations bills that are much smaller. There is no question that the funding is tight, and the science agencies will have to be creative in thinking about how to keep the best and brightest scientists, including early career researchers, interested in grant seeking pursuits when their chances of success continue to fall.

The most recent warning shots came with the markup of the House Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee bill for FY 2013. While the Senate’s version of the bill coming out of the full appropriations committee provides an increase of $100 million for NIH, the House bill provides flat funding for the agency overall and reduces funding for most Institutes by .02 percent. In doing so, however, other agencies take a significant hit. For example, funding for the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) is eliminated; funding for CDC and SAMSHA is reduced by 10% and 9% respectively; and funding to implement the Affordable Care Act is zeroed out. 

House appropriators also used the bill to continue its practice of eliminating funding for targeted areas of science. The bill states that “none of the funds [at NIH]… shall be used for any economic research programs, projects, or activities,” a provision that could affect any research using socioeconomic (SES) status as a variable; research on the costs of illness or impact of SES on health disparities; and long-term national surveys on aging and retirement that include measures of income. The bill also:

  • Mandates a 90/10 split between extramural and intramural research;
  • Requires that 55 percent of all research be basic science;
  • Prohibits funds for patient-centered outcomes research; and,
  • Funds the National Children’s Study at $175 million “with no changes to the current design or Vanguard pilot structure until at least 90 days after the IOM conducts a review of the proposed changes and impact on the results.”

There are other controversial provisions. The House Labor-HHS-Education bill states that “none of the funds… may be used for any program, project, or activity related to research” until NIH submits a document to the HHS Secretary certifying that it is “of significantly high scientific value” and its impact on public health is measurable, including how success will be measured. Since the bill contains funding for the Affordable Care Act, House appropriators are using the “power of the purse” to undercut funding for the Prevention and Public Health Fund and new Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute.  The full House Appropriations Committee has not scheduled its consideration of the bill.

In other funding bills, NSF fared better with a $240 million increase provided by the Senate appropriations committee and a $221 million increase for R&D on the House side. However, House appropriators used that bill (known as Commerce-Justice-Science bill) to also eliminate funding for another area of science, political science.

In the immediate, with control of the House and Senate chambers currently split between Democrats and Republicans, it is not likely that funding for either economics or political science research will be eliminated at NIH and NSF. In addition, the CR is not likely to have controversial policy riders attached since both parties want to see its passage. In the long-term, however, future elections could determine how much and what science is funded.  

On top of the gloomy news about FY 2013 funding, sequestration cuts loom large.  It seems that most of the attention has now turned to the severe impacts of an additional 8-10% cuts to non-defense and defense spending due to take effect in January 2013. A report commissioned by the Aerospace Industries Association predicts “widespread American job losses” of around 2.14 million across both defense and nondefense discretionary areas, with non-defense absorbing over 1 million of these job losses.

Despite the devastating impact on both sectors, most of the chatter on the Hill has focused almost exclusively on the impacts to defense. To correct the imbalance, almost 3000 organizations sent a letter to Congress urging a responsible deficit reduction approach that does not include further cuts to nondefense programs that have already absorbed around 10% in cuts over the last few years, since some proposals would shift the cuts from sequestration from defense to nondefense.

To draw further attention to the impact of sequestration on the non-defense, discretionary parts of the federal budget, a “Rally to Restore Balance” was held on Capitol Hill. Led by Senator Tom Harkin, with remarks from Senator Patty Murray, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, and Rep. George Miller, among others, the event was covered by several media outlets and signaled that the message is making its way into the broader discussion on sequestration. 

At the same time, Senator Harkin released a report detailing the impact of the upcoming across the board cuts on non-defense sectors, affecting “everything from education to job training, medical research, child care, worker safety, food safety, national parks, border security and safe air travel,” and arguing that the impact of cuts to non-defense could be worse than cuts to defense. In describing the impact on NIH, Senator Harkin points to an Office of Management and Budget analysis that 700 fewer grants would be issued in FY 2013.

Others are also weighing in. In its report, Research America describes the impact of $3.6 billion in cuts to five agencies, including NIH, NSF, CDC, FDA, and AHRQ (assuming it survives the appropriations battles). And in a Science editorial, two biomedical faculty provide a Titanic-like “Iceberg Alert for NIH,” stating that if sequestration takes effect on top of already sparse funding levels, the result will be, in effect, a 41% decline in funding (in constant dollars) from 2004 to 2014.

Given the impact of sequestration, the additional cuts scheduled for January 2013 are likely to be averted. Politico describes them as “the cuts that no believes will come,” but how the $1.2 trillion across-the-board cuts will be avoided is unclear. Congress does not have much time to act, either before the election or in the lame-duck session following the election when other issues such as expiring tax cuts will also be on the agenda. Meanwhile, both parties are eager to learn more from the White House about how the sequester would impact specific programs.