The appropriations outlook

Published July 01 2018

As the weather heats up in Washington, D.C., so too does discussion around funding the government for fiscal year 2019, which begins Oct. 1. The annual appropriations process has begun in earnest, with legislators developing their funding plans and advocates making the case for special interests.

After months of continuing resolutions and two government shutdowns, fiscal 2018 was a boom year for science funding. The National Science Foundation and Department of Energy saw modest budget increases, and the National Institutes of Health saw an unexpected $3 billion increase.

Will 2019 be another year of support for the life sciences? There are three reasons to be hopeful that 2019 will continue the trend and three reasons to be concerned.

Three reasons to be hopeful:

It is an election year. The Republican majority in Congress is looking to prove it can govern and avoid lurching from one legislative crisis to the next as has become the norm on Capitol Hill. The party could demonstrate leadership by completing appropriations work on time without the threat of continuing resolutions or government shutdowns.

Appropriators already are saying good things. During an Act for NIH celebration event this spring, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Roy Blunt., R-Mo.; House Labor, Health and Human Services Appropriations Committee Chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla.; and ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., told attendees that another increase of $3 billion to the NIH was more than in the air for fiscal 2019.

Budget caps already are negotiated. In recent years, the appropriations process has been delayed by the need to renegotiate spending caps. Once the caps were raised, lawmakers had to renegotiate spending levels at federal agencies. Those increased spending caps are in effect again for fiscal 2019, so we already have a clear sense of how much money Congress can spend.

Three reasons to be concerned:

It is an election year. The legislative calendar is more condensed than it is in nonelection years. Congress has an annual recess from August through Labor Day. This year, in addition to the summer recess, lawmakers will be home to campaign from mid-October through early November. This will make it harder to do all the legislative work required before the end of fiscal 2018. In three of the past four election years, appropriations work was delayed to the next calendar year.

The election will change things. After the election, we'll have a lame-duck Congress, with a potential change of majority when the new Congress is seated in January. Partisans could try to delay or speed up the appropriations process in concert with changing political priorities. This uncertainty could complicate negotiations.

The NIH has been doing very well. The $3 billion increase for fiscal 2018 followed a $2 billion increase for fiscal 2017 and a $2 billion increase for fiscal 2016. This much-needed growth will not continue into perpetuity. We are beginning to hear grumbling on Capitol Hill about NIH funding fatigue, with some lawmakers saying Congress has done enough to support the NIH.

This summer, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology public affairs office will continue our advocacy to keep funding of basic life-science research a priority for lawmakers. With a trend of funding increases and with medical research largely viewed as important, we remain hopeful that the positive trends will continue. For updates on the process and how you can help, follow our policy blog.

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