Inside (the Beltway) Scoop – Jennifer Zeitzer
Created by on 05/02/2013

Congress Feels Pain of Sequestration; Bipartisan Letters Urge Strong Investment in NIH

Despite their unwillingness to stop sequestration from going into effect in March, members of Congress had a change of heart about a month later when they and their constituents experienced flight delays as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) began furloughing air traffic controllers. Motivated to end the travel delays before flying home for a week-long recess, lawmakers passed emergency legislation (HR 1765) giving the FAA flexibility to use unspent funds from other programs within the agency’s budget to cover the salaries of the furloughed air traffic controllers, allowing them to return to work.

Prior to passage of the FAA bill, many Democrats in Congress criticized their colleagues for failing to deal with the impact of sequestration on other federal agencies and programs. House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said “we ought not to be mitigating the sequester’s effect on just one segment when children, the sick, our military and many other groups who will be impacted by this irresponsible policy will be left unhelped.” President Obama noted that “lawmakers should use the same sense of urgency and bipartisan cooperation to pass a deficit reduction bill.” It is not immediately clear if Congress will consider additional legislation to provide relief to other agencies, but many expect that the recent action on behalf of the FAA will re-open the conversation among lawmakers about replacing the automatic spending cuts with an alternative deficit reduction plan. At the very least, organizations that advocate for the other federal agencies and programs still feeling the impact of sequestration will have the opportunity to continue to make the case to Congress that they too should be spared. FASEB will continue to inform Congress about how the budget cuts to National Institutes of Health (NIH) are affecting biomedical research.

In other sequestration-related news, on April 30 NIH released more information about the impact of the funding cuts on its fiscal year (FY) 2013 budget. According to the Sequestration Operating Plan for FY 2013, the budget for all of NIH’s 27 institutes and centers, including the Office of the Director, is below its FY 2012 level due to sequestration. The final FY 2013 funding level for NIH is $29.15 billion. It is not clear when NIH will release additional details about the number of grants that will be cut.

Congress is expected to turn its attention to the FY 2014 budget when it returns to Capitol Hill in early May and the Appropriations Committees have begun hearings with cabinet secretaries and other senior administration staff to review the individual agency budget requests. NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins is scheduled to testify before the Senate Labor, Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee in mid-May.

In the meantime, members of Congress have sent letters to their colleagues on the Appropriations Committees requesting funding for specific programs. Representatives Edward Markey (D-MA) and David McKinley (R-WV) gathered 168 signatures (157 Democrats and 11 Republicans) on letter that specifically requested $32 billion for NIH in FY 2014, echoing FASEB’s funding recommendation. In addition, Markey and McKinley expressed concern about the impact of funding cuts on younger researchers.

Senators Robert Casey (D-PA) and Richard Burr (R-NC) also organized a bipartisan letter urging the appropriators to “consider the tremendous benefits of a sustained investment in the NIH,” noting that it is “important to continue federal support for medical research because of the potential health benefits for all Americans and the importance of ensuring that our Nation remains at the forefront of medical research.” The Casey-Burr letter was signed by a total of 52 senators (43 Democrats and 9 Republicans), exceeding the number of signatures collected on a similar letter last year.