Created by on 7/17/2012 12:00:00 AM

Anyone reading recent headlines in local or national newspapers might logically conclude that Congress can’t agree on anything today, but the reality is that lawmakers are on the same page on a number of issues. For example, both the House Republican and Senate Democratic leadership seem content to spend the remainder of July “riding out the clock” until the summer break begins in early August, rather than addressing the long list of legislative business that must be resolved by the end of the year (see the related “Special Report” in this newsletter.) In addition, the November elections are influencing which issues land on the day-to-day agenda in each chamber. House Republicans are using the election as a backdrop to debate legislation they believe will significantly boost their chances of expanding their majority, including voting for the 32nd time to repeal the Affordable Care Act. On the other side of the Capitol, the Senate is working on approving nominations and other low-profile bills in order to protect Democratic Senators from having to take votes on controversial issues.
Sequestration is another issue on which members of Congress have found common ground over the last few weeks. They have agreed that while there currently is no political will to consider a comprehensive deficit reduction plan to avoid the automatic spending reductions, the best strategy is to seek information from federal agencies about how the budget cuts will affect specific programs. In late June, the House Budget Committee unanimously passed The Sequestration Transparency Act of 2012 (HR 5872), a bill that requires the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to issue a report detailing the effects of sequestration on discretionary and direct spending for defense and non-defense programs. The proposal in HR 5872 is similar to the report requested in the Murray-McCain amendment that was adopted during debate on the Senate farm bill. HR 5872 mandates that the OMB report list all of the accounts to be sequestered down to the program, project, and activity level, as well as the dollar amounts and percentages of the spending cuts. During Budget Committee consideration, the legislation was amended to require OMB to submit the report to Congress no later than 30 days after enactment of the bill. The original language requested the report by July 9, 2012. In his opening remarks at the mark-up, Budget Committee ranking member Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) specifically mentioned the pending cuts to biomedical research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other science agencies. He also offered an amendment to prevent the sequestration by making cuts in farm payments, eliminating oil and gas subsidies, revising the federal flood insurance program, and enacting a tax on millionaires. The Van Hollen amendment was defeated by a party-line vote of 10-19. Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s opening statement, the amended bill text, and the video of the mark-up are available on the committee’s website. The House may hold a final vote on HR 5872 during the week of July 16th.   
The strategy of seeking information rather than taking action achieved some results on July 10th when OMB Acting Director Jeffrey Zients authored an editorial in Politico praising Congress for beginning to talk about sequestration noting that, “If you are driving toward a brick wall, you should do what you can to change course.” Zients also reminded lawmakers that the White House has already released President Obama’s plan for deficit reduction and stated that demanding information on the impact of sequestration from the administration is not going to avoid it. He chided Congress for “focusing on how much hitting the wall would hurt – not on how to avoid it in the first place.” The Acting Director maintained that the true effects of the automatic cuts cannot be predicted by OMB until lawmakers pass the fiscal year (FY) 2013 spending bills, although he referenced the Congressional Budget Office estimate that domestic spending would be reduced by approximately eight percent under sequestration, undermining research and development investments in NIH and the National Science Foundation. He concluded by saying, “We hope that instead of tightening their seat belts and putting on crash helmets, Congress spends the next six months doing the job it gave itself under the Budget Control Act — and passes balanced deficit reduction that will avoid the sequester.”
A day after the OMB editorial was published, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) responded to Representative Ed Markey’s (D-MA) June 7th letter requesting detailed information about how sequestration would affect medical research and other programs at NIH. The HHS letter specifically mentioned that sequestration would limit the Department’s ability to accelerate scientific knowledge and innovation affecting NIH by “potentially eliminating 2,300 new and competing research project grants.” Representative Markey issued a press release reacting to the HHS letter stating, “We shouldn’t mortgage our future by cutting crucial research and development programs that are creating and supporting jobs and businesses today.”
The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) is also continuing to educate lawmakers about the devastating impact of sequestration on the biomedical research community. On June 26th, Howard Garrison, PhD, Director of the FASEB Office of Public Affairs, was interviewed on Federal News Radio (1500 AM) during a segment that discussed the effects of sequestration on the NIH budget. FASEB’s sequestration analysis projected that extramural research funding at NIH could be cut by $2.8 billion (11 percent) and calculated the loss of NIH dollars per state. Updated versions of the FASEB NIH state funding factsheets reflecting the impact of sequestration are available here.
Despite finding some areas of agreement, lawmakers still have plenty of differences to address in the coming months. The House Labor, Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee will consider the bill that funds NIH on July 18th, but that may be the last spending bill to see any significant action before November. Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and House Appropriations Committee chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) engaged in a war of words over the unfinished appropriations bills after a Politico blog post reported that Senator Reid said the Senate may not finish any of the spending bills before the end of the year because of the House Republicans’ refusal to adhere to the FY 2013 top-line spending level of $1.047 trillion. According to Reid, “Until the Republicans get real, we can’t do that because they have refused to adhere to the law that guides this country. We passed last August legislation that is now a law that set forth the spending for this country during the next fiscal year. They refuse to adhere to that, so that makes it hard to do these appropriations bills.” Chairman Rogers dismissed Reid’s assertion that the Senate’s inability to complete work on the appropriations bills was tied to the actions of the House and issued a press release accusing the Senate Democratic leadership of “defaulting on their most basic duty as representatives of the people of this country.” The Rogers release also noted, “The House and the Senate are free to disagree, and frequently do, but that should not give cause for one whole legislative branch to act like impudent children, effectively taking their ball and going home.”
A major revision of the nation’s farm policy is another issue that is dividing Congress at the moment. On July 12th, the House Agriculture Committee approved their version of the 2012 farm bill (HR 6083) by a vote of 35-11 (see related story), following Senate action last month. Despite bipartisan pressure from members of the Agriculture Committee, it is unclear whether the House leadership will bring the farm bill to the floor for a vote before the August recess. Similarly, House leaders acknowledged that postal reform legislation (which was expected to include language relating to federal agency spending on conferences and employee travel will not be considered this summer. In related news, on June 27th, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee passedThe Government Spending Accountability Act of 2012 (HR 4631), a bill intended to respond to issues raised by the scandal involving a General Services Administration conference in Las Vegas. HR 4631 was amended to address concerns of the association and travel communities regarding proposals to restrict federal agency spending on and travel to meetings and conferences. According to the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) which has been working with the House and Senate on the travel amendments issue, the revised version of HR 4631 does not restrict the number of conferences/meetings federal employees may attend annually. The revised language even suggests private entities can provide some financial support for federal employees to attend a non-government meeting or conference. This is a significant change from the language that was included in an earlier proposal (HR 2146, the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act) which prohibits federal employees from attending more than one conference annually.