Is This NIH's Year?

There's never enough money, it seems. Virtually every spring and summer, as Congress begins to allocate federal funds for the next fiscal year, lawmakers face some of their most vexing dilemmas in the bill that appropriates funds for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, which provides the bulk of federal domestic spending.

June 20, 2008

There's never enough money, it seems. Virtually every spring and summer, as Congress begins to allocate federal funds for the next fiscal year, lawmakers face some of their most vexing dilemmas in the bill that appropriates funds for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, which provides the bulk of federal domestic spending.

In every recent year, President Bush has proposed far less money for the programs covered by the bill than Democrats and even some lawmakers in his own party believe they deserve, and because of the enormously wide range of departments and activities covered by the legislation, House and Senate appropriators are left with very tough choices about how to allocate the limited funds. Most have nothing to do with higher education, pitting home heating assistance for low-income Americans vs. mental health services, for instance, or a revolving fund for clean water against grants for law enforcement.

But because the legislation also provides funds for many programs dearest to college officials -- including research funds for the National Institutes of Health, billions in student financial assistance, and support for vocational education and job training -- the spending bill for labor, education and health programs often results in a sort of Sophie's choice.

At the risk of oversimplifying, the question is: Where should we put precious new money, in student aid or biomedical research?

While advocates for students would probably never concede the point, financial aid has been the relative winner in recent years. Funding for Pell Grants, the largest federal student program, has risen sharply since 2006, and two budget reconciliation measures have also poured billions of dollars into new programs aimed at bolstering access to college. The National Institutes of Health, meanwhile, after seeing its funds doubled between 1997 and 2003, has watched its funding fall flat and its purchasing power in real dollars decrease by 13 percent since then, spurring increasingly agitated calls from biomedical research advocates for more funds.

Early indications are that those calls may be heeded. On Wednesday, Congressional leaders and the White House reached agreement on a supplemental spending bill for the 2008 fiscal year (see related article on veterans' education) that would provide $150 million in additional funds for the NIH as part of a broader package of $400 million in new research support.

And perhaps more importantly, as a House appropriations subcommittee took its first whack Thursday at drafting the 2009 version of the education, labor and health spending bill, the panel unanimously backed a plan to give the NIH $1.2 billion more than it is receiving in 2008 and than President Bush proposed giving the biomedical research agency for 2009.

It's not that student aid would get the shaft in the legislation drafted by the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies, about which relatively few details were released Thursday: The bill calls for an increase of $3.1 billion in the Pell Grant Program, which would allow the maximum grant for low-income students to increase by $169 in 2009, to $4,410. And the measure would sustain (rather than slash or eliminate, as President Bush's budget proposed) current funds for most of other student aid programs, including the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants and work-study programs.

But given how the budget dynamics typically work in Congress, Thursday's developments bode well for NIH and, perhaps, less well for the Pell Grant and other financial aid programs.

That's because House appropriators, and particularly the chairman of its spending panel, Rep. Dave Obey of Wisconsin, are usually the major boosters of student aid in the annual appropriations process, while their counterparts on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), historically push hard in the direction of the NIH.

Last year, for example, the House panel proposed a $390 increase for the maximum Pell Grant for 2008, and a modest 2.6 percent increase for the NIH, while Senate appropriators recommended a $1 billion increase for biomedical research and no new discretionary money for Pell Grants. When the dust finally settled on the budgeting process for 2008 last December, there were really no winners in higher education (or any other discretionary spending programs, for that matter), as President Bush held a hard line on overall spending and Democrats gave in. But students still gained, as the budget reconciliation measure approved in September provided a $490 boost in the maximum Pell Grant, fueled through federal mandatory funds.

This year, the dynamics appear to be different. While President Bush is again trying to hold the line on overall federal spending, Congress -- including many Republicans -- appear inclined to ignore the lame duck president's recommendations. The bill approved by the House subcommittee Thursday would spend $153.1 billion on the programs under the panel's jurisdiction, $7.8 billion more than Bush proposed.

The president proposed freezing funding for the NIH at the 2008 level, but the House bill rejects that freeze, Obey said. "In all my years in Congress, I've never had anybody come up to me and say, 'Obey, why don't you guys get your act together and cut cancer research?' " the Democratic chairman said in his opening statement about the bill. "And yet, that's what has happened. The President and the Congress have cut 1,100 grants from the National Institutes of Health."

Not this year, if Obey has his way. The $1.2 billion increase, which would lift spending for the NIH to $30.2 billion, would allow for 1,000 new research grants, he said.

The House bill would defy the White House in numerous other ways, as well. It would not only reject the Bush administration's call to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from programs under the Health Resources and Services Administration that finance health professions and nursing education, but it would increase funds for the programs by $69 million. Increases are also expected for a small number of education programs, including the TRIO and GEAR UP programs for needy middle and high-school students, but details on those are not expected until the full House Appropriations Committee meets next week.

The panel's bill would also sustain more than $1 billion in funds for vocational education that the Bush budget would eliminate and slash funds for the controversial Reading First program, which has faced several critical audits.

The subcommittee's leading Republican, Rep. Jim Walsh of New York, cited the lack of funds for Reading First as a potential problem -- but one of only a few, despite its hefty price tag. "This bill spends a great deal of money, but I believe it's needed," he said, calling the measure "a realistic and honest attempt to meet the needs of the people."

Advocates for biomedical research were heartened by the subcommittee's proposal. “Years of flat-funding have been discouraging to researchers and have delayed the progress of life-saving discoveries,” said Robert Palazzo, president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. “It is our hope that this markup represents a critical turning point, and we look forward to working with Chairman Obey and Congress to bring about a sustainable future for NIH.”


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