Congress Pivots to Fiscal Year 2018 Issues: NIH Remains a Top Funding Priority

March 15th, 2017

While negotiating a final resolution to the Fiscal Year 2017 funding bills, Congress is forging ahead with hearings, launching the Fiscal Year 2018 appropriations process. Given the bipartisan support that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) enjoys on Capitol Hill, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees (the two committees in Congress responsible for drafting all 12 appropriations bills that fund the federal government) held initial hearings highlighting the agency’s needs and accomplishments.

On March 8, the Senate Labor, Health and Human Services and Education Appropriations Subcommittee, which funds the NIH, held a hearing, Saving Lives Through Medical Research. A constant theme echoed by Republican and Democratic members of the subcommittee was the importance of investing in the NIH. Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO), chairman of the Senate Labor, Health and Human Services and Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said: “. . . we must continue to firmly establish our federal commitment to the National Institutes of Health. . . . We must remain focused on establishing a pattern of responsible investment through the appropriations process. We do not know the scientific advances that will be made in the next ten years, but we do know that if we keep investing in NIH, they will keep making life-saving breakthroughs.” Senator Blunt also implicitly endorsed the NIH peer review process when, during his closing remarks, he stated: “. . . Congress is in all likelihood not the best place to specifically talk about how research dollars are allocated, particularly how they’re allocated over some longer period of time.”

Senator Blunt’s Democratic counterpart on the subcommittee, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), also expressed her enthusiasm for the NIH, but warned that proposed cuts in overall nondefense discretionary funding that the Trump Administration will propose in its fiscal year 2018 budget could adversely affect the NIH. Specifically, Senator Murray said: “Cutting nondefense spending by $54 billion would require devastating cuts to the education, health and training programs that this subcommittee funds and I don’t see how NIH, which accounts for 20 percent of the funding in the bill, will avoid being affected.” Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who is the Ranking Democrat on the full House Appropriations Committee, bemoaned how “the ups and downs of the budget are particularly harmful in the medical research field.” View the full hearing on the Appropriations Committee website.

While the Senate hearing was occurring, on the other side of the Capitol, members of the House Labor, Health and Human Services and Education Appropriations Subcommittee, were holding a public witness hearing. During the hearing, Subcommittee Chairman Congressman Tom Cole (R-OK) and Ranking Democrat Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) heard from 19 witnesses who spoke in support of a wide range of programs under the subcommittee’s jurisdiction, including the NIH. The hearing featured witnesses who discussed issues of interest to the behavioral and social sciences, including health disparities, Alzheimer’s disease, and medical research training opportunities and challenges.

The Fiscal Year 2018 appropriations process will begin in earnest on March 16 when the Trump Administration releases its initial budget proposal. Referred to as a “skinny” budget, the initial proposal will provide some insights into the Administration’s plans. More details regarding the new Administration’s funding priorities will be revealed when the White House sends Congress its detailed FY 2018 budget proposal before the current continuing resolution, which is funding the federal government, expires on April 28.