If you were paying attention to the appropriations process the last couple weeks, you probably thought things were looking up for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The Senate seems to be committed to restoring NIH’s funding to levels in place before sequestration. On Thursday, July 12, the Senate appropriations committee marked up a Labor-Health and Human Services-Education Appropriations bill (Labor-HHS) that promised $30.9 billion for NIH for FY14, an increase in funding of $1.6 billion for the agency from FY13.
The Senate is able to allot these funds to NIH because they have proposed a budget that restores the budget cuts mandated in the Budget Control Act (BCA). Senate Democrats have also made clear that domestic spending is their priority in these spending negotiations. After a caucus meeting with NIH Director Francis Collins, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), referencing the Senate’s decision to address funding for domestic programs before defense programs, said, “We are not going to be gamed by having the military programs funded at a much higher levels than Head Start or NIH.”
Unfortunately, the enthusiasm from the Senate will be short-lived once the House of Representatives has its say. Unlike the Senate, the House plans to maintain the budget cuts imposed by BCA in its version of the appropriations bill. This means that the Labor-HHS subcommittee has a much smaller pot to divvy up for its programs than its Senatorial counterpart. The House is providing the Labor-HHS bill with about 26% less funding than the Senate, so it is highly unlikely NIH will see the level of support it has from the Senate when its funding is considered by the House. However, as of a few days ago, Republican representatives are suggesting that cuts will be made to other programs under the jurisdiction of the Labor-HSS bill, like student grants for education and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, rather than to NIH funding. The House had planned to mark-up the legislation on Thursday, July 24, but postponed the mark-up with no indication of when it would be rescheduled.
Coming up on Congress’ August recess, the big question is, will the two Houses be able to reconcile their very different funding numbers when the appropriations bill is negotiated in the fall? These disagreements suggest otherwise. Most likely, NIH’s funding will stay the same as it’s been the past few years. Unfortunately, at these current levels of funding, Director Collins cautioned, “We’re putting an entire generation of U.S. scientists at risk and our own nation at risk as well.”