Created by on 09/10/2012

Members of Congress are scheduled to return to Washington this week to address a short list of legislative business, including completing work on a “continuing resolution” (CR) intended to avoid pre-election threats to shut down the government and keep federal agencies operating beyond the start of fiscal year (FY) 2013 on October 1st. The specific terms of the CR have not yet been revealed, but the temporary funding agreement is expected to run through March 30 2013 in order to give Congress an additional six months to negotiate the final FY 2013 budget. Overall funding for federal agencies will be held to the Budget Control Act top line level of $1.047 trillion, a slight increase above the FY 2012 total. The CR will not include controversial policy riders – including those affecting the National Institutes of Health (NIH) – that were attached to the House Labor, Health and Human Services (LHHS) Appropriations bill.
Although the CR will give lawmakers a lengthy extension, negotiations among House and Senate Appropriations Committee staff could begin during the “lame duck” session that is expected to take place after the November elections. In anticipation of future action on the LHHS funding bill, FASEB sent a letter to the House Appropriations Committee and will issue a press release expressing deep concern about a number of the NIH policy riders that were included in the draft legislation introduced earlier this summer. The FASEB letter stated that the restrictive policy provisions will impose burdensome and duplicative certification requirements on NIH and undermine the efforts of the agency to manage its portfolio effectively. For example, the bill imposes a crushing and unnecessary administrative burden on the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) by requiring the HHS Secretary to certify that all “programs, projects, and activities have a measurable impact on public health (section 223).” If applied to FY 2011 funding, this provision would have required the certification of each of the nearly 64,000 grants, contracts, and awards funded by NIH. In addition, the certification duplicates the existing NIH peer review process, which is conducted by thousands of independent volunteers who have the relevant expertise to evaluate the scientific merit and potential public health impact of grant applications. The FASEB letter also mentioned the requirement that NIH fund a specific number of training awards in FY 2013, potentially undermining the agency’s efforts to address issues raised in the recently released report of the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director Working Group on the Biomedical Research Workforce (see related article in this newsletter). Copies of the FASEB letter to the House Appropriations Committee were provided to Senate appropriators as well. FASEB will work with Congress, NIH, and the research community to ensure that any policy changes do not constrain agency efforts to facilitate long-term progress in science and technology. 
The effort to restrict federal travel and reduce agency expenditures on conferences and meetings is another issue that Congress could address later this fall. The House may vote on the Government Spending Accountability Act (HR 4631) the week of September 10th. Several other legislative proposals introduced in the aftermath of a General Services Administration conference in Las Vegas are also currently pending, and in May, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued a memorandum instructing agencies to decrease their spending on travel by 30 percent. Agencies must report to OMB by mid-September steps they will take to implement the OMB directive. FASEB recently sent a letter to Congress and issued a press release explaining how the various travel and conference proposals will affect the scientific community. The FASEB letter emphasized that travel is a key component – not a perk – for program officers who manage extramural research programs, that conferences provide a tremendously valuable means of communicating scientific information, and that participation in meetings allows government scientists to provide top quality service to their agencies. FASEB is also part of a group of organizations within the larger scientific community working on other efforts to educate lawmakers about the importance of federal support for meetings and conferences.
It is likely that Congress will postpone taking action on most legislative issues until after Election Day, and the September legislative session is expected to be brief. Lawmakers are scheduled to be in Washington for only one full week the entire month, interrupted by the Jewish holidays and a district work period the week of September 24th. Although the House calendar shows members returning for a week beginning on October 1st, few people on Capitol Hill believe this will happen. It is also not clear when the “lame duck” session will convene.