September 2010

Congress Adjourns until Fall with Most Appropriations Bills Unfinished


Once more, the U.S. Congress heads into its traditional August recess with work unfinished on almost all regular appropriations bills – an event so commonplace for so many years that it has become the new norm, as predictable as the notorious Washington, D.C. humidity that Congress leaves each August to escape. 


NFTH---CongressAs of mid-August, the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee has approved nine of 12 appropriation bills, but none have reached the Senate floor. The U.S. House of Representatives has passed two bills, and another nine have been approved by the relevant appropriations subcommittee.

Senate Approves $1 Billion Increase for NIH

On July 29, the U.S. Senate Appropriations committee approved the U.S. Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2011 (S.3686), funding the agency at an overall level of $77.6 billion in discretionary funding. The National Institutes of Health would receive $32.0 billion, which was the President’s request; this is $1.0 billion more than NIH received in fiscal year 2010, a 3.2 percent increase (approximately the rate of biomedical inflation). This funding level results in an estimated $31.4 billion in research and development investment at NIH.

Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Penn., offered an amendment during the markup to increase the NIH budget by an additional $1 billion, but the amendment failed. Committee chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, expressed sympathy for the amendment, but the committee simply did not have enough money to fund the amendment. He also noted that a great deal of the stimulus money approved for NIH last year ($10 billion) had not been spent, which should cushion the impact of no real growth at NIH in 2011.

The Senate committee report includes language related to a number of American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and other Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology society concerns:

• Cures Acceleration Network: Fifty million dollars goes to the Office of the Director. The report notes that the committee hopes to fund CAN at higher levels in future years, but that that there will be limited time in fiscal year 2011 to award grants because of start-up issues like establishing the review board. (ASBMB Today readers will remember that this proposal, offered by Specter, was adopted last year during the final debate on the health care reform bill.)

• The Funding “Cliff”: This term refers to the drop-off of funds available for supporting research at NIH when the additional $10 billion in stimulus money no longer is available. The report notes that the softest possible landing is critical to maintaining the scientific momentum gained over the past two years and to ensuring that young investigators have a bright future in biomedical research. The report also notes that the committee “hopes that this will mark the first of several years of growth for the NIH that, if not spectacular, are at least steady and predictable.” (Again, the term “growth” is a debatable word choice, since the 3.2 percent increase barely keeps up with biomedical inflation.)

• Basic Research: The report includes the following statement: “The Committee believes that basic biomedical research should remain a key component of both the intramural and extramural research portfolio at NIH.”

Want more information about what's happening on the Hill? Check out the ASBMB Policy Blotter. 

• Career Development Awards: The report notes that the committee supports the preservation of K-Awards as a critical training mechanism.

• Clinical and Translational Science Awards Program: The report notes that the committee “strongly supports the CTSA program” and “believes that stronger involvement from all 27 ICs would help the program reach its full potential.” The report requests that “the Director consider developing a formal, NIH-wide plan on how to align the CTSAs with the programmatic and funding priorities of the ICs.”

House L/HHS Action

The U.S. House Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee approved its version of the bill on July 15. The House version provides $77.5 billion in discretionary funds for the HHS, $189 million (0.2 percent) less than the request. NIH would receive the same as in the Senate bill, $32.0 billion.

Unfortunately, report language accompanying the bill will not be made available until after the full House Appropriations Committee considers the bill. (Bill language usually is written at the subcommittee level.) There is no indication as to when the bill will go to the full committee. However, neither the House nor Senate bills will go to their respective floors before the November elections. Look for continuing resolutions after Congress returns in September.

NSF Fares Somewhat Better than NIH

The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee approved the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2011 (S.3636) on July 22. The bill includes $7.35 billion for the National Science Foundation, $71 million (1.0 percent) less than the President’s request. This translates to a 7.2 percent increase.

In contrast, the U.S. House Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Subcommittee met the President’s request of $7.42 billion for the NSF when it approved its version of the bill on June 29. The House bill also provides the NSF education budget with a $66 million increase over the President’s request. If the increase holds, it would be the second year in a row that Congress has increased the NSF education budget. The Senate bill does not provide an increase over the request, but it does deny the request to merge a number of broadening participation programs into a single program, citing different purposes and methods of engaging students and colleges.

A Look Ahead

It is highly likely that there will not be floor action on any remaining appropriations bills until after the elections on Nov. 2. This is especially true with the two bills discussed above, Labor/HHS and CJS, as they contain programs that frequently provoke floor fights. Thus, Congress will return after Labor Day and take up only “must pass” legislation, which is likely to be a continuing resolution to fund the government until after the November elections, at which time Congress may return for a lame-duck session to try to wrap up the remaining appropriations bills.

It is not certain that a lame-duck session will occur, however. The politics of such a session would be a very important factor. It appears as though control of the House of Representatives may be “in play,” with at least the possibility existing that the Democrats will lose their majority. (It almost is a foregone conclusion that the Democrats will lose seats.) If this were to occur, the Democrats may try to hold a “lame-duck” session to pass bills that they know they will be unable to pass in the next Congress. The GOP will, of course, stall and delay as much as possible to keep anything controversial from passing prior to the new Congress convening after the new year.

Our prediction: look for an exciting fall, both in terms of politics and substance.

Peter Farnham ( is director of public affairs at ASBMB.

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