House and Senate Appropriations Committees Both Show Bipartisan Support for NIH Funding in FY2016 Spending Bills
This June, both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees marked up fiscal year (FY) 2016 spending bills from their respective Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education (Labor-HHS-Ed) subcommittees that would significantly increase funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The level of support for NIH funding in both of these bills is welcomed strongly by the medical research and advocacy communities, who have long expressed opposition to the more than a decade of budget stagnation and cuts as the result of sequestration.
The new levels proposed for FY2016 are a strong step in the direction of reversing the trend that has seen the purchasing power of the NIH drop by 25% over the last decade. The House Labor-HHS-Ed bill would provide an increase to the overall NIH budget of $1.1 billion (a 3.6 percent increase) over FY 2015 levels, including a 2.7 percent increase to the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and full funding ($200 million) of President Obama's Precision Medicine Initiative. The Senate's version of the bill would go even further by increasing the NIH budget by $1.9 billion — the largest increase since 2003. These increases reflect a clear, bipartisan prioritization for medical research funding in both chambers of Congress and specific NIH initiatives including precision medicine.
However, the passage of these two bills through their respective Appropriations Committees is only the beginning of the process to enacting these funding levels, and the continued political brinksmanship within Congress and the overall budget-making process present significant challenges. Due to the Budget Control Act, all overall spending levels are capped, meaning that any substantial increase to one set of programs must be met by a corresponding funding cut elsewhere in the bill. The Republican majorities in both chambers have gone one step further in cutting a number of other programs in the Labor-HHS-Ed bills well beyond the increases provided to the NIH and other programs. In fact, both bills would provide an overall funding level several billions below current FY 2015 levels. These extensive cuts have drawn considerable opposition from the Democrats in both chambers of Congress and President Obama.
Thus it appears that outside of the bipartisan support for NIH and medical research funding, there is little that Congressional Republicans and Democrats agree upon, particularly with regard to the sequester budget caps. There is an ongoing debate between the two parties about raising the spending caps such that both defense programs and non-defense discretionary, including high priorities like funding for the NIH and Food and Drug Administration (FDA), can benefit. Republicans have opposed any increase to the caps outside of defense spending, while Senate Democrats have threatened to filibuster any spending bill that adheres to the sequester budget caps. In addition, President Obama has indicated his intent to veto any spending legislation that reaches his desk that adheres to the caps. Because of this, the appropriations process that progressed relatively smoothly through the various committees is likely to become bogged down, and unless the two sides compromise during the next few months, many are predicting that another potential government shutdown is on the horizon.
Therefore, it is critical that both sides come to the negotiating table to work on an agreement that ensures that both defense and non-defense discretionary programs receive the resources that they need. In the meantime, the proposed increases to the NIH budget contained in both bills hang in the balance. To emphasize to our nation's policymakers of the importance these increases, the medical research advocacy community must continue highlighting the importance of increased funding for the NIH and FDA.