The two legislators with arguably the most clout over the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) promised yesterday to give NIH “at least” the $1 billion increase that President Barack Obama has requested. It would be the second step in “sustained” annual boosts for the agency, said Representative Tom Cole (R–OK) and Senator Roy Blunt (R–MO). And they said the increase won’t rely on a spending gimmick in the president’s 2017 budget request last month, a tactic that Congress is almost certain to reject and that could leave NIH and several other research agencies with smaller budgets.
Cole and Blunt lead the two appropriations subcommittees in Congress that oversee NIH and other health, education, and labor programs. Last night the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) feted them for their critical role in hiking NIH’s 2016 budget by $2 billion—the largest in a decade outside of a one-time injection of $10 billion from the 2009 stimulus package. The two Republicans told an appreciative audience on Capitol Hill that they hope to repeat their 2016 performance this year.
“The most important thing, as Roy has already said, is to make sure that the $2 billion increase in 2016 is not a one-hit wonder,” Cole explained. “We want this to become a regular pattern for Congress, to make these NIH investments in a regular, manageable, and predictable way so that the scientific community knows they will continue.”
But how they arrive at the higher number is also important, because there’s no more money to spend in 2017 than in 2016. (The $1.07 trillion available for so-called discretionary spending in 2017 is a mere $3 billion more than 2016 levels.) Obama actually proposed cutting $800 million from NIH’s discretionary budget of $32.1 billion, that is, money appropriated each year by Congress. Then he would add $1.8 billion in so-called mandatory spending—with the dollars coming from various federal revenue sources that do not fall under congressional purview each year.
That dual-funding mechanism is a nonstarter, Republican congressional leaders say, and it will be ignored as committees begin cobbling together spending bills for each agency. That leaves open the question of what strategy the Republicans will adopt.
Cole and Blunt said last night that they hope to negotiate with White House officials to find room to boost NIH at the expense of other agencies within their committee’s jurisdiction. “So I’ve told the White House that we’re going to do at least what the president asked for, or more, but we’re going to do it with discretionary dollars,” Cole said. “I said to them, ‘You can either help me pick the programs you’ve asked for that aren’t going to happen, or you can let me do it myself.’”
Blunt believes that there’s a bipartisan consensus on the importance of boosting NIH’s budget and that it will prevail in any legislative debate over priorities. Cole is less sanguine, saying that it will require members of both parties to face some difficult choices.
“Republicans have a hard time making decisions on what to cut in defense, and the Democrats have a hard time with social programs,” he says. “So I told them, ‘Look, we’ll help you get to your number, and we’ll be the bad guys in some areas.’ We’d like to get to a higher number, to be honest. But to do that, it’ll take some reductions in other programs.”
Cole thinks that the mandatory spending provision in a separate congressional proposal—known as 21st Century Cures—that would hike NIH’s budget by $8.75 billion over 5 years is a bad idea because “at some point, it always creates a cliff. And then you are left scrambling.” Blunt feels that setting any explicit funding target threatens the goal of an orderly and dependable rise in funding.
“I don’t think we should ever again set the goal of doubling the NIH budget, as was the case when I first got to Congress [in 1997],” he says. “It created a sense somehow that, once you double it, you can turn to something else. I think we need to make a long-term commitment here.”
FASEB has proposed a nearly $3 billion hike for NIH in 2017. That number may be unrealistic given the overall cap on spending. But for at least one night, society officials were treated to exactly what they wanted to hear from Congress.