Washington Update

Inside (the Beltway) Scoop

By: Ellen Kuo
Wednesday, November 4, 2020

COVID-19 Package Dead Until the Lame Duck Session and Researchers Continue to Face Hardships

The House Budget Committee released a report citing a long list of high profile monetary, budget, and economic policy officials who support increased spending of billions, if not trillions of dollars, in the current low-interest environment for another COVID-19 package. Following the report’s release, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) took steps but failed to advance a more modest $519 billion bill, Senate Amendment 2652 to S. 178, the Delivering Immediate Relief to America’s Families, Schools and Small Businesses Act. It would have expanded unemployment benefits and aid to schools, in addition to providing money for virus testing, among other provisions. The amendment was McConnell’s attempt to counter a COVID-19 package being negotiated simultaneously by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-NY) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and to pivot attention to the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court before Election Day.

Meanwhile, President Trump said he was ready to match the $2.2 trillion spending levels House Democrats demanded, despite repeated warnings from Republican senators that they would not accept such a bill. Points of contention impacting progress on House negotiations were aid to states and an employer liability shield. Nonetheless, Secretary Mnuchin and Speaker Pelosi’s negotiations brought them closer together on terms but not before the House adjourned on Friday, October 23. Additionally, Pelosi sent a letter to Mnuchin last week saying she was still awaiting legislative language for the COVID-19 package, which is expected to be considered in the lame duck session of Congress.

The ongoing negotiations were the last attempt to finish the procedural work to pass a COVID bill before November 3, which could have been a vehicle for emergency funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation. In the meantime, NIH also issued a notice in the Federal Register explaining that funds for noncompeting research grant awards will be provided at a level below that indicated on the most recent Notice of Award (generally up to 90% of the previously committed level). Any upward adjustments to awarded levels will be considered after fiscal year 2021 appropriations are enacted. This notice was required because NIH is operating under a continuing resolution (CR) as are all other government agencies.

The growing costs of COVID-19 on researchers and patients continues as disease-specific research has slowed due to tenuous funding and research data becoming no longer usable. Thousands of PhD students and postdoctoral researchers have lost precious time to obtain hands-on skills, secure funding, build mentor relationships, and establish their long-term career goals. Young researchers are deciding to make major career changes due to the stress of job insecurity — the strongest motivator. NIH is working to capture these effects on extramural researchers through a survey it issued.

What the longer term impacts of this pandemic will be on how scientific research is conducted is unknown. The longer there is uncertainty in resources — human and financial — for the research community, the more U.S. competitiveness efforts are damaged as countries such as Germany, South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan gain ground.

Looking ahead, the Senate is scheduled to return on Monday, November 9, and the House on Monday, November 16. Given the House’s planned adjournment date of December 10 and the Senate’s anticipated departure on December 18, members of Congress will have approximately 30 days to address a long list of unfinished business. Among the most urgent is the looming December 11 date when the current CR ends.