At a moment in which US politicians are seeking to outdo each other as proponents of fiscal restraint, it is relatively rare to find senators speaking up to defend spending. But today, roughly a third of senators are doing so on behalf of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), asking the Senate’s spending chiefs to protect the $30.8 billion biomedical agency as they negotiate its 2012 budget in the next few months.
Senator Richard Burr (right), a North Carolina Republican who is a fiscal conservative, and Senator Bob Casey (left), a first-term Pennsylvania Democrat, on Wednesday began asking other senators to sign on to a “Dear Colleague” letter dated today (June 10). It is addressed to the leaders of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, and to the senior members of the subcommittee that funds the NIH. As of this morning, the letter had gathered a total of 31 signatures, four of them from Republicans.
“As you and your colleagues prepare the Fiscal Year 2012 appropriations bills,” the letter begins, “we respectfully ask that you maintain a strong commitment to funding for the National Institutes of Health.” It goes on to call medical research funding “essential” for controlling ballooning health care costs, for treating and curing diseases and for keeping the country the “world leader in research and development.”
The letter’s timing is not accidental. On July 26, House lawmakers are scheduled to hammer out the details of their version of the spending bill that funds the NIH. The pot of money they have been given to work with, to fund all agencies covered by the bill, is 12% lower than it was for the current fiscal year; and NIH represents almost 20% of the funding provided by the bill. (The Senate has not yet produced a similar allocation of funds for its spending subcommittees to work with.)
Francis Collins, the NIH director, told a committee of external advisors yesterday: “The [funding] prospects ahead for FY 12 are a source of really deep concern.”
Adding to Collins’ concern is the fact that, for the first time that Collins can recall, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies has not called the NIH director to Capitol Hill to testify on the budget that the agency is seeking next year.
While he testified at a “very positive” hearing at the corresponding Senate subcommittee last month, Collins said yesterday, “the House of Representatives has basically decided not to have a hearing on the NIH appropriation.”
In answer to a question from an adviser about the degree of support for the agency on Capitol Hll, Collins said that some Capitol Hill staffers “see NIH as a particularly valuable government investment. We also have some who are confrontational…and not very friendly about our defense of what we would like to be doing in this climate and who are giving our staff quite a hard time.”
A spokeswoman for Rep. Denny Rehberg, the Montana Republican who chairs the House subcommittee, replied this afternoon by email to a request for comment on his reason for not holding a hearing.
“We had an overall [Health and Human Services Department] hearing earlier this spring that included discussions related to NIH – including questions for the record directed at the agency,” committee spokeswoman Jennifer Hing wrote.
The NIH experienced a cut of $321 million, or about 1 percent, in 2011, causing Collins to predict that grant application success rates this year will fall to a historic low of 17% or 18%.
Jennifer Zeitzer, the director of legislative relations at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology said she was “thrilled” to learn of the letter. “When the entire conversation is about cuts, to get a letter that says `We, the undersigned want a strong investment in NIH’– it says a lot.”
The letter, she added, will be important later this year, when House and Senate members must resolve differences in their funding levels for the biomedical agency. “It gives the Senate folks — people like [Senator Tom] Harkin and [Senator Richard] Shelby, who are going to write the bill, more evidence to insist that they can’t cut the NIH budget.”
Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, and Shelby, an Alabama Republican are, respectively, the chairman and the senior Republican on the Senate subcommittee that funds the NIH.
UPDATE: June 15 2011: The Burr-Casey letter, with a total of 41 signatures, including seven from Republican senators, was sent to Senate appropriations leaders on June 14. It can be seen in its final form here.