We’re excited, sort of

Published August 08 2016

The annual appropriations process, through which Congress provides funding for all federal programs, has reached its predictable summertime stall. On paper, the appropriations process is predictable and easy to navigate. The U.S. House and Senate appropriations committees draft spending bills in which they establish the funding levels for the next fiscal year for agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Each chamber of Congress establishes its own funding priorities and levels and approves the spending bills. Then the House and Senate committees work together to negotiate the differences between the two proposals before settling on one final proposal, which is sent to President Barack Obama. The process is called regular order here in Washington. But it is anything but regular.

As you certainly have experienced recently, regular order has not been the standard operating procedure. Congress, over the past decade, has stumbled during the appropriations process, which has resulted in the need for continuing resolutions. The continuing resolutions forgo annual spending plans in favor of simply continuing into the next year with the same funding levels as the previous year. Sometimes those continuing resolutions last a few weeks, long enough to allow Congress to pass one massive spending bill that funds all government programs.

Last year, Congress passed an omnibus spending bill. The NSF saw a modest $120 million increase in fiscal year 2016, and the NIH saw a robust $2 billion increase. A continuing resolution would have rendered those increases impossible, thus reminding us that an omnibus spending bill is better than a continuing resolution.

This year started with promises from Congress that regular order would be followed. Both the House and Senate appropriations committees passed spending bills. The House proposal cuts $57 million from the NSF’s budget, while the Senate increases the NSF’s budget by $46 million. While the overall proposed budget for the NSF is cut by the House, the research budget actually is proposed to increase by $46 million. For the NIH, the House proposal increases the budget by $1 billion, and the Senate increases it by $2 billion.

If regular order does occur, we have reason to believe the NSF and NIH will fare well. The 114th Congress has been opposed to increases in federal spending, but they have been swayed by advocacy efforts expressing the needs for investments in basic research. The NSF has received modest growth to its research portfolio. On a bipartisan basis, Congress has favored investments in biomedical research at the NIH as exemplified by the proposed increase of upward of a billion dollars. We’re excited, because our advocacy efforts are beginning to bear fruit in the form of sustained increases in funding levels.

Our excitement is tempered, though, by the understanding that this is still Washington, and it’s an election year. With Congress in recess now, the appropriations process is stalled. With a compressed legislative calendar in the fall resulting from presidential campaigns and the November election, a continuing resolution is probably the only way to avoid a government shutdown in September. Keeping spending levels flat for a portion of fiscal year 2017 will cost our community, because every day, week and month of delay in passage of spending bills for FY17 is a delay in the much-needed proposed increases to our research portfolios. We are optimistic that Congress eventually will pass a spending bill that sets funding levels for FY17 that will increase research dollars at the NIH and the NSF. We just want to see that bill pass sooner rather than later.

Benjamin Corb Benjamin Corb is director of public affairs at ASBMB.