Congress must act on funding

Published September 01 2017

The unfortunate reality of partisan politics and Congress’ inability to perform its usual duties has made the budget and appropriations process little more than the legislative version of a Rube Goldberg machine, where even the simplest and least contentious points are complicated by unnecessarily complex hurdles.

Congress has yet to act on a fiscal 2018 spending plan and is months behind what is typically referred to as “regular order,” putting the scientific community in its usual position of budget uncertainty, with the specter of either a continuing resolution or even a government shutdown looming on the not-too-distant horizon.

Earlier this year, President Donald Trump released a budget request that would be disastrous for the scientific community, cutting by upwards of 20 percent investments in the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and most other science-funding agencies that support the basic biomedical research community. Those cuts were rejected soundly by both Democrats and Republicans in Congress as too deep, given the importance of and support for these investments.

Congress, unfortunately, has been slow to fulfill its responsibility of funding the government through the budget and appropriations process. Coming back from the August recess, Congress has not yet passed a budget for fiscal 2018; nor has it completed any of the appropriations bills that would fund the work of American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology members.

The House and Senate differ on how to invest in the NSF (the House calls for a flat budget, while the Senate calls for a small cut). The Department of Energy’s Office of Science also would see a flat budget with the Senate’s plan, but the House would give it a slight increase. And the NIH would receive a $1 billion increase from the House Appropriations Committee, while the Senate has yet to release its spending proposal.

With members of Congress returning Sept. 5, they will have only 25 days to negotiate a spending package that is acceptable to Democrats, Republicans and the president. A short-term continuing resolution — keeping funding at the current level until a deal can be reached — is increasingly likely.

While a CR is better than a budget cut or a government shutdown, CRs are damaging to the scientific community in ways lawmakers don’t always recognize. Science funding agencies often hold back funds during a CR to ensure they can continue funding grants that already have been awarded, which often means a 10 percent cut to grant funding during the CR. The uncertainty of funding for the next fiscal year often causes funding agencies to act more conservatively in funding decisions, which can affect grant paylines and reduce the number of grants awarded in the early part of the fiscal year.

These problems are not unique; nor are they unknown. Last fall, the ASBMB hosted a panel of experts to talk about the effects on the scientific enterprise of not following regular order with budgets. Our advocacy efforts include calls to pass a fiscal 2018 spending package that provides the funding needed to keep the U.S. as the global leader in biomedical research and innovation.

It is time, now, for Congress to take action and pass a fiscal 2018 spending plan.


Benjamin Corb Benjamin Corb is director of public affairs at ASBMB. Follow him on Twitter.