December 2009

The More Things Change… Appropriations Bills Still Hanging Fire


Despite solid majorities in both the U.S. House and Senate and a president sympathetic to the majority’s legislative agenda, congressional Democrats still remain unable to agree on several major appropriations bills, including those that fund the two main federal research agencies— the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation— in which the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology is most interested. This continues a trend going back to at least the Reagan administration, in which action on most appropriations bills is not completed by the start of the new fiscal year, and the remaining bills get lumped together at the end of the fiscal year in continuing resolutions before some agreement is finally reached, months after the legislation was supposed to have been approved. The trend has continued no matter which party is in power. And, so far in the first year of the Obama administration, it shows no signs of abating.

At this point, only four of the 12 regular appropriations bills have been signed into law, although another one is on the president’s desk awaiting his signature. Two bills are in conference. The House has completed consideration of all 12 bills, the Senate only seven. Unfortunately, two of the bills in which action is incomplete are the commerce, justice, and science appropriations bill, which funds a host of science agencies, including the NSF, NASA and others, and the labor, health and human services, and education appropriations bill, which funds the NIH.

Since fiscal 2010 started on Oct. 1, the government has been running on a series of continuing resolutions that fund the government at current levels (that is, last year’s levels) for varying lengths of time. The latest continuing resolution runs out Dec. 18, thus signaling the possibility of another delayed congressional recess. Although the Senate leadership has indicated it would like to pass the remaining appropriations bills individually, it is becoming increasingly likely that a so-called “minibus” will emerge, rolling the remaining bills into one package. (“Minibus” is a policy wonk play on words, taking off on an “omnibus” continuing resolution, which rolls all appropriations bills into one package.)

The National Institutes of Health

The NIH is funded at differing levels in the House and Senate versions of the legislation. The House-passed version funds the NIH at $31.26 billion, $854 million more than funding in fiscal 2009 (not counting the stimulus funding provided earlier this year). The Senate Appropriations Committee has approved the L/HHS bill as well, but it funds NIH at $500 million lower than the House has provided— at only $30.76 billion, a $364 million increase. The stimulus money ($10 billion over two years) is accounted for separately, but, if added in, it boosts both totals by $5 billion each for 2010. This money must be spent by the end of fiscal 2010, Sept. 30.

ASBMB, along with the rest of the biomedical community, has been considering what level of funding to request for fiscal 2011. Pretty much everyone in the biomedical research community is coalescing around a figure somewhere in the range of $35 billion. Those who have studied the numbers (ASBMB staff among them) believe that it would take a figure in that range to avoid a catastrophic dropoff in the number of competing grants that can be funded. However, no specific number is being promulgated at this time until the fiscal 2010 appropriations level has been settled. Unfortunately, we are hearing very downbeat assessments of the likelihood of an NIH request even approaching this level.

The president will be presenting his budget proposal for 2011 in early February, and Office of Management and Budget officials and others have informed us that we should not be optimistic about major increases in the coming year. An increase on the order of $5 billion to $6 billion more for NIH would use most of the additional funds expected to be available to the Department of Health and Human Services in next year’s budget. The president is thus unlikely to put most available money into NIH and propose no increases in other programs in the bill.

It is also somewhat unusual that the Senate figure is significantly below that of the House. However, the Senate Appropriations Committee has indicated that the passage of the stimulus funding bill made a big difference in its funding levels for regular appropriations, since NIH received so much stimulus funding and since most of it will be spent in 2010.

Unfortunately, NIH’s stimulus funding also has caught the attention of Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, ranking minority member of the House Commerce Committee, which oversees NIH. He wrote to NIH Director Francis Collins on Sept. 24, asking for information on a number of NIH-funded grants, including one studying Thai “sex workers” and one on patterns of drug use in Brazilian “rave culture.” He has also written to the Government Accountability Office asking that NIH’s use of the $10 billion in stimulus money be examined. He wants to know if the process and criteria for funding grants under the stimulus program were different from the ways NIH usually funds grants and how many jobs were “created or maintained” (one of the objectives of the stimulus package).

On this note, President Obama indicated Sept. 30, during a visit to NIH, that more than $5 billion in NIH stimulus money had been awarded, funding 12,000 new grants and creating “tens of thousands of jobs conducting research, manufacturing and supplying medical equipment and building and modernizing laboratories and research facilities all across America.”

National Science Foundation

The National Science Foundation bill has passed both houses of Congress, but a conference has yet to be called. The House has approved a funding level for NSF of $6.937 billion, a $447 million increase over 2009. The Senate level is $20 million less, at $6.917 billion. The Senate debated the bill for almost a month before passage. One item of contention was an amendment offered by U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., to eliminate $9 million for funding of political science research. However, this was defeated, and the bill ended up passing the Senate handily.

Peter Farnham ( is director of public affairs at ASBMB.

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