Dems’ House Takeover May Mean Harder Fight for Research Funds

Democrats will likely elevate other health priorities besides NIH when they control House; This could mean medical research advocates have to compete for their share of funding
Friday, November 9, 2018

Biomedical research funding advocates will face more competition for federal dollars on the House side next year as Democrats will likely look to raise funding in other areas, such as mental health, a former top health appropriator said.

Funding research that could advance new cures and treatments has been a priority for both Republicans and Democrats, which is reflected in recent health appropriations. The National Institutes of Health’s appropriations increased almost 30 percent from about $30 billion in 2015 to about $39 billion in 2019.

While a Republican-controlled Congress boosted NIH spending in its labor and health and human services spending bills, or labor-H bills, they’ve shifted funds away from Democratic priorities like teen pregnancy programs toward programs for veterans and infrastructure that conservatives favor.

When Democrats take control of the House in January, advocates for Planned Parenthood, mental health, and other programs could see an opportunity to increase funding and will likely step up their lobbying game, former Rep. John Edward Porter (R-Ill.) said Nov. 8. “And NIH is going to have to compete for that funding.”

Porter served as chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies before leaving Congress in 2001. At a briefing on the midterm elections, Porter agreed with former lawmakers and a congressional aide that Congress has given more attention to science funding. But the House’s priorities next year will be more divided than they had been under a Republican majority.

“The difficulty with the labor-H bill,” Porter said, “is that it is a bill where the Republicans have had one priority—and that’s medical research. All the rest of the programs in the bill, they couldn’t care less about.”

Forced Cuts Restored?

While it’s not clear which programs could come to the forefront, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), the top Democrat on the subcommittee, said in June the initial Republican plan for FY 2019 lacked sufficient funds and forced cuts to some health programs, including Planned Parenthood, to pay for the increase in research funding.

She said the measure also didn’t fund gun violence research at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For FY 2018, the Republican spending plan would have cut millions of dollars from programs for mental health and substance abuse prevention, eliminated the Minority HIV/AIDS initiative, and cut the Community Services Block Grant program, she said.

But former Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.) said the history of bipartisan support for medical research could mean it’s the one area that will continue to see support. “There is going to be a necessity for the parties to work together in order to advance their own agendas. And I think that is going to help science research, perhaps medical research in particular, more than having just a one-party system will.”

Castle, who was the top Republican sponsor of bills in 2005 and 2007 to increase the number of embryonic stem cell lines available for research, said there’s been a “real change” in how Republicans view medical research. “There’s much more support than what used to exist when I first came to Congress” in 1993.

Challenges in 2020 and Beyond

NIH funding is secure through 2019 because lawmakers reached a budget deal last year with the White House to increase budget caps that included a boost for medical research dollars. But science funding advocates could face a real challenge in FY 2020 and beyond, said Sudip Parikh, senior vice president and managing director of the nonprofit drug development group Drug Information Association for the Americas. Parikh was an appropriations staffer under Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who was the longtime top Democrat of the labor-HHS appropriations subcommittee.

“There is a lot of support for science funding,” Parikh said. “The challenge is science funding takes a large portion of domestic discretionary spending.” Research dollars come out of the nondefense discretionary spending pool, which accounts for about 16 percent of total federal spending, according to the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities. That means science funding outside of defense has to compete for a share of less than a fifth of total government dollars with a variety of programs ranging from housing to education to veterans’ benefits.

Castle is the chairman of the health research advocacy group Research!America, which organized the briefing, Porter is the chairman emeritus and Parikh is one of their board members.

 

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