Created by on 10/15/2012

Despite the significant amount of unfinished legislative business awaiting congressional action, the lure of the campaign trail was too hard to resist as lawmakers made a mass exodus from Washington in late September. Both chambers are in recess until after Election Day but are expected to be back in the Capitol in mid-November for a “lame duck” session. The House is scheduled to return to work on November 13th. It is not clear when the Senate will reconvene, although organizational meetings for the next legislative session will be held the first week in December. Prior to adjourning for the break, both the House and Senate passed H J Res 117, a “continuing resolution” (CR) that will keep all government agencies, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Department of Energy Office of Science (DOE SC), funded through March 27, 2013 at an overall spending limit of $1.047 trillion, as agreed to in the Budget Control Act of 2011. The House adopted the CR by a vote of 329 - 91. Senate passage followed a week later via a 62 – 30 vote.  
The $1.047 trillion amount is slightly higher than the final budget for fiscal year (FY) 2012. However, most agencies are expected to keep spending at their current rate, which is the standard practice, when they are operating under a CR. On October 11th, NIH issued a notice announcing that “non-competing research grant awards will be funded below the level indicated in the most recent Notice of Award (generally up to 90 percent of the previously committed level) until the fiscal year (FY) 2013 appropriations are enacted.” Leaders of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees have indicated that they would like to complete work on the FY 2013 budget by passing a comprehensive omnibus funding bill during the “lame duck session” even though the CR does not expire until March. The chances of Congress passing an omnibus bill later this fall seem very remote, however, given that the congressional leadership does not see the unfinished budget as a high legislative priority.
In related fiscal news, lawmakers are facing increasing pressure to reach an agreement on an alternative to sequestration. On September 14th, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released the report required by the Sequestration Transparency Act (Public Law 112-155) that Congress passed in July. According to the report, under sequestration, overall funding for non-exempt, non-defense discretionary programs, including NIH and NSF, would be cut by 8.2 percent. OMB estimates that NIH would lose $2.53 billion from the agency’s current budget of $30.7 billion. NSF would be cut by $570 million, and DOE SC would be reduced by $400 million. Reacting to the OMB report, FASEB issued a press release on September 18th reiterating the Federation’s earlier estimate that the actual cut to NIH could be at least $2.8 billion.
Although there has been no official legislative activity in Washington over the last few weeks, a bipartisan group of six Senators is working behind-the-scenes to develop a balanced approach to deficit reduction that includes new taxes as well as additional spending cuts, rather than the automatic across-the-board approach required by sequestration. The “Gang of Six” reportedly includes Republicans John McCain (AZ), Kelly Ayotte (NH), and Lindsey Graham (SC) and Democrats Carl Levin (MI), Jeanne Shaheen (NH), and Sheldon Whitehouse (RI). A separate “Gang of Eight” is also holding talks to develop a deficit reduction plan that replaces sequestration with a proposal similar to what was authored by former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles and presented to the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform in 2010. Participants in the “Gang of Eight” include Democrats Richard Durbin (IL), Kent Conrad (ND), Michael Bennet (CO), and Mark Warner (VA), and Republicans Tom Coburn (OK), Michael Crapo (ID), Saxby Chambliss (GA), and Mike Johanns (NE). According to press reports, the “Gang of Eight” has shared a draft of their plan with at least 30 other Senators interested in a balanced approach. Other reports indicate that a group of conservative Senators determined to allow sequestration to take place have been meeting in secret to devise a method to block a bipartisan deal if that happens during the “lame duck” session. The conservatives prefer sequestration because they fear moderate Republicans will accept new tax increases in exchange for spending cuts that represent money that would have already been saved – such as funds from the drawdown of troops – rather than actual deficit reduction.
It is too soon to tell if Congress will be able to reach a post-election deal on a plan to avoid sequestration. Additional pressure from organizations that advocate on behalf of specific programs will be needed to force lawmakers to take action before January. Given the potential impact of sequestration on funding for the federal science agencies, members of the FASEB Board of Directors will be going to Capitol Hill on December 4th to urge their elected officials to reach a compromise that does not include further cuts for NIH, NSF or DOE SC. In addition, FASEB leaders will encourage their members of Congress to complete work on the FY 2013 spending bills to enable federal agencies to plan for the coming year.