NIH Research Funding in Limbo - As Usual

Longtime SPIN readers have become accustomed to the legislative pyrotechnics that accompany the beginning of each federal fiscal year. Getting to an agreement on the appropriations bill for the Department of Health and Human Services has never been easy, and now that the surpluses are gone, the deficit is climbing, and emergency spending piles up, it’s harder than ever.

Longtime SPIN readers have become accustomed to the legislative pyrotechnics that accompany the beginning of each federal fiscal year. Getting to an agreement on the appropriations bill for the Department of Health and Human Services has never been easy, and now that the surpluses are gone, the deficit is climbing, and emergency spending piles up, it’s harder than ever.

One interesting twist this year is that the Labor-HHS Appropriations conference report – the compromise between the House and Senate versions of the bill – has actually been defeated in both the House and Senate. Defeat of an appropriations conference report is very rare. The Senate voted to send the bill back to a conference committee to reach an acceptable compromise. House lawmakers must now be convinced to take part in a conference. The agencies in the bill, including the National Institutes of Health, could be funded by a long-term “Continuing Resolution,” likely at the level of current spending or below.

In a note following the bill’s defeat, the Ad Hoc Group, a coalition promoting NIH funding in which APA participates, observed that while a number of factors contributed to the defeat of this bill, certainly one of the main reasons was the bill's failure to fund critical health and education programs adequately. NIH's growth, for example, would be held to about $250 million, the smallest increase in more than three decades.

Several House members who advocate spending cuts have indicated that it would be best to put NIH, public health and education programs on a full-year continuing resolution (CR). According to their calculations, a full-year CR would save $1.6 billion. Even more would be cut from these programs if a government-wide across-the-board cut were applied, as has been proposed by both the White House and the Speaker of the House.

When the Senate voted to send this bill back to conference, it also instructed its conferees to seek increased funding for vital health and education programs, including NIH. The Senate singled out NIH in particular, by calling for restoration of the Senate amount of $29.4 billion, an increase of 3.7 percent.

APA is supporting an effort to urge House members to support the Senate's Motion to Instruct Conferees to free up $2.2 billion in funding for the FY 2006 Labor-HHS-Ed bill by designating that amount of LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) funding as emergency spending. That motion, sponsored by Sen. Specter, passed the Senate in a vote of 66-28. Traditionally, some portion of LIHEAP’s appropriation has been designated as emergency funding, but that mechanism was disallowed this year by the House.

Look for an action alert from APA in the next week explaining the situation further and encouraging letters to members of the House. There are few alternatives to flat-funding and additional budget cuts if measures like the LIHEAP proposal are rejected.