Alex Philippidis Senior News Editor Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News

The House is set to finalize funding for FDA, NSF, NIST, and OSTP by the end of this week.

Observers of Congress can be forgiven if they say they went to a fight and a budget broke out. Eager to bypass the political squabbling of recent years, the House of Representatives and Senate have developed a process that should, if it goes right, iron out funding for many science agencies by the end of this week.

Returning from recess today, the House is set to consider the $128 billion “minibus” approved by the Senate on November 1, HR 2112. It covers FDA, NSF, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and sets their respective budgets at levels approved earlier this year by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“Minibus” is a cute take on “omnibus,” the traditional all-agency budget bill that Congress hasn’t seen since FY 2010 when the House, Senate, and White House were in Democratic hands. By creating minibuses, Congress is trying to get at least parts of the budget done sooner by combining budgets related to multiple agencies. HR 2112 marked the first of several planned minibuses. It combines the Commerce-Justice-Science, Agriculture-Rural-FDA, and Transportation-Housing and Urban Development budget portions.

Trying Not to Miss the Budget Bus

By using a House bill number, the Senate met the Constitutional requirement that spending bills originate in the House. The bill passed in an unusually bipartisan 69–30 vote. That set the stage before the recess for the first formal House-Senate conference committee session since 2009, in which both chambers are supposed to be hammering out a compromise minibus.

Reports on the panel’s progress vary widely. “My understanding is that most of the numbers and most of the provisions in what the Senate passed have already been negotiated with the House, so they’re really sort of bypassing the conference process, if you will, and going to direct approval of the negotiated package,” Dave Moore, senior director, government relations for the Association of American Medical Colleges, told GEN.

The House can still make its presence felt by amending the minibus with changes to some Senate numbers and a new stopgap continuing resolution (CR) to allow the rest of the budget to be funded at 1.5% below FY 2011 past November 18, when the current CR expires. The amended minibus would then move to the Senate for a vote, then to President Barack Obama for his signature by November 18.

“That would really be a good catalyst to keep the appropriations process moving forward,” Jennifer Zeitzer, legislative director for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, told GEN.

The November 18 deadline should indeed keep amendments to a minimum especially since the House requires that legislation and conference reports be available on the Internet for at least 72 hours before a vote. The ability to amend on the floor, if allowed by the House Rules Committee, is one advantage of the minibus process over the traditional conference committee setup, which requires compromise legislation to be voted up or down.

“This whole minibus strategy is an approach to try and bypass having to negotiate and then consider each bill individually on the Senate and House floor,” Moore said. “This is an effort to try and expedite the process.”

Funding Proposals

The current minibus includes spending levels for FDA, NSF, NIST, and OSTP as follows:

  • FDA: The Senate increased the agency’s budget by $49 million from FY 2011, to $2.497 billion. Earlier this year, House Appropriations approved spending $283.57 million, or 11.6%, below last fiscal year, leaving FDA with $2.163 billion for FY ’12.
  • NSF: The minibus cuts the agency’s budget by $162 million, or 2.3%, from $6.86 billion in FY ’11 to $6.698 billion. Specifically, NSF’s research budget was cut by $120.875 million, or 2%, to $5.443 billion. NSF fared better in the House, where Appropriations approved a $6.9 billion budget in July, almost flat with FY 2011, with basic research set to rise by $43 million year-over-year to $5.607 billion.
  • NIST: The Senate pared funding for NIST by $70 million, or 9.3%, from last fiscal year to $680 million. House Appropriations approved a $49.289 million, or 6.7%, cut, which would give the agency about $700.8 million.
  • OSTP: A $6 million budget was approved by the Senate, down nearly 10% from $6.647 million in FY ’11. But that’s much better than the House Appropriations spending plan, which slashed more than half OSTP’s budget, from $6.647 million to $3 million, in a dispute over cooperation with China.

“The numbers between the House bill and the Senate bills on almost every issue and program are so far apart that in many cases, even splitting the difference down the middle won’t work, because it would still exceed the upper limits of this past summer’s budget deal,” Zeitzer said.

Moore says House numbers for FDA and other agencies that fall short of the Senate’s are likely to rise to at least Senate levels. However the House and Senate hash out the numbers, they will likely fall well below those proposed for the science agencies by Obama’s administration. In his budget presentation, the president envisioned the same $6 million for OSTP as the Senate. But Obama proposed an 11.6% increase for FDA to $2.7 billion, a 13% spending hike for NSF to $7.767 billion, and a 33% jump for NIST to over $1 billion.

NIH to Come

As for NIH, arguably the most important science agency not covered by the minibus, Obama’s budget proposal included a $200 million, or 3% increase, to $31.7 billion. NIH will be included in whatever minibus covers the Labor-Health and Human Services (HHS)-Education portion of the budget and could perhaps also be combined with another portion of the budget, such as Defense.

“Labor-HHS-Education is a tough allocation, and they’re probably going to get many, many amendments on the floor,” Jon Retzlaf, managing director of science policy and government affairs for the American Association for Cancer Research, told GEN. “I think the Labor-HHS bill could take up an entire week by itself, with the amendments that are out there to do everything like trying to remove some of the money for some of the healthcare reform provisions. The question is, do they want to have that fight, and do they have the time for it?”

One example of how amendments and politics can mix arose last month during the markup of the Labor-HHS-Education budget portion by the full Senate Appropriations Committee. Labor-HHS-Education subcommittee member Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) proposed an amendment to restore the $190 million cut from NIH and offset it by an across-the-board reduction in all other programs in the bill.

The amendment failed 14–16, with all Democrats opposed and all Republicans in favor. Senate Appropriations had approved, on September 21, $30.5 billion for NIH, down 0.6%, or $190 million, from last fiscal year’s budget of about $30.68 billion.

Obama found an ally for greater NIH funding in the House, where on September 29, House Appropriations released a draft Labor-HHS-Education spending bill also allocating $31.7 billion, which was the amount President Obama sought. “By spending tax dollars strategically, we can balance critical funding for programs that actually help people and families with the real need to rein in government over-spending,” Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-MT), chairman of the Labor-HHS-Education subcommittee, said in a statement.

If the House Appropriations proposal for NIH at $31.7 billion sounds a little too good to be true, there’s a reason. In FY’11, NIH’s budget was sliced 0.8%, or $260 million, from $30.93 billion in FY’10 to $30.68 billion. The latest spending bill has not been approved by its namesake subcommittee or the full committee, let alone the full House. That raises the question of whether a bill that matches Obama in NIH spending could survive a Republican-controlled House.

Even if it did, the House Appropriations draft offers small comfort to NIH supporters in the Senate or elsewhere. It requires the agency to award at least a total 9,150 new and competing grants, and maintain a 90–10% split between funding for its extramural and intramural research programs.

Moore and other NIH supporters have criticized these provisions as instances of micromanagement. “The House has stipulations in its bill that are very concerning to the entire community,” Retzlaf said.

However the House and Senate resolve their differences over NIH funding, their answer for this fiscal year is unlikely to carry over into next. The “supercommittee” formed to cut at least $1.2 trillion from federal spending over 10 years is due to issue recommendations on November 23. While the supercommittee’s work will not affect the FY’12 budget, it will lay groundwork for how Washington spends for science agencies and other priorities for the decade to come.

Some of that groundwork should be easier to lay if the House and Senate can come to terms quickly on at least the parts of an FY 2012 budget. Science agencies should fit much more into that category compared to hot-button issues like healthcare reform funding or whether and how to cut defense.

Alex Philippidis is senior news editor at Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News.

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