Washington Update

Inside (the Beltway) Scoop

By: Ellen Kuo
Thursday, February 9, 2023
Subcommittee Chairs of House Appropriations Finalized as Hearings Begin

House appropriators have finalized their subcommittee rosters. For the majority, Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) will chair the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education Subcommittee, which funds the National Institutes of Health (NIH) with ranking member Rosa DeLauro (D-CT). Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY) will chair the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Subcommittee with jurisdiction over the National Science Foundation. His ranking member will be Matt Cartwright (D-PA). Details on the other Democratic members on subcommittees can be found here.

Additionally, various committees have held their organizing meetings for the 118th Congress. Most recently, the House Energy and Commerce Committee met to organize and named Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) the first woman to chair this committee. It was established in 1795 and has broad jurisdiction over many issue areas impacting the nation, from public health and research to food and drug safety. Last week the chair released a statement following a Government Accountability Office report on how to improve research involving enhanced potential pandemic pathogens, a type of so-called “gain-of-function” (GOF) research.

In the statement the chair said, “Today’s watchdog report affirms many of my concerns with the secretive HHS board that purportedly reviews risky research projects from federal agencies. So far, the risky research proposals of concern only appear to be funded by the National Institutes of Health, specifically by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The American public deserves to know to what extent their tax dollars are being used to fund pathogenic research that has the potential to cause a pandemic. Whether or not the U.S. government played any role—directly or indirectly—in the creation of COVID-19, our committee’s investigation is uncovering a host of issues that require more attention. Thankfully, we were able to enact some commonsense prohibitions regarding where and how this type of research is funded, but we will continue pushing for more accountability and oversight to start rebuilding public trust in these research agencies.” 

This report was released the same time as the Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General’s report criticizing NIH’s handling of EcoHealth Alliance grants. The NIH issue with EcoHealth often gets mixed into the discussion with “gain of function research of concern” and with determining the origin of COVID. NIH will continue to be in the crosshairs this Congress as it focuses on how NIH’s operations can be improved.

In terms of hearings, on February 1, the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of Energy and Commerce held a hearing on the origins of the pandemic and other biological events to determine what a national strategy on pandemic origin investigations would look like. During the hearing, witnesses provided their ideas, which included having an efficient and skilled interdisciplinary scientific workforce. Another was protecting researchers, academics, and other professionals who offer controversial findings and conclusions on origin investigations from workplace criticism and retaliation. Some researchers are also being negatively portrayed in the techniques they use to do their work, which include gain of function. One witness, Michael Imperiale, PhD, clarified for committee members that gain-of-function experiments are misunderstood and are not done unless there is a need to address a significant biomedical question where other approaches are not available. He stated “gain of function covers a very broad area of experimentation in which, as the term states, an organism or cell or infectious agent is given or acquires a new property. In the vast majority of cases, these properties are innocuous or, indeed, beneficial.”