Jewish World Review Dec. 8, 2000 / 12 Kislev 5761
GOP is in danger of ruining
FOR THE PAST three years, the Republican Congress has given a truly
precious gift of hope to victims of serious diseases and their families by
steadily increasing federal funding for medical research.
Now that record and up to 4,500 promising research projects are in
jeopardy because Congress is considering merely funding the National
Institutes of Health at last year's level. This amounts to a net cut after
"It would be a disaster for medical research and for public health," said
retiring Rep. John Porter (R-Ill.), chairman of the House Appropriations
subcommittee that oversees NIH.
Porter, along with his Senate counterpart, Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), and
retiring Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), convinced their GOP colleagues three
years ago to begin doubling the NIH budget over a five-year period.
Universities and scientists across the country have been encouraged to
prepare proposals, hire personnel, buy high-tech equipment and make
career decisions anticipating that funding would continue to rise at the rate
of 15 percent annually.
The surge in research also has given hope to people afflicted with dreaded
diseases, such as cancer, AIDS, Alzheimer's and diabetes, and their
families. My wife suffers from advanced Parkinson's disease.
Suddenly, though, the funding increases are in peril. Instead of acting on
four still pending appropriations bills in the current lame-duck session of
Congress, some Republicans are talking about folding them into one
long-term continuing resolution that would fund most of the major civilian
departments of the federal government at last year's levels.
NIH funding is part of the appropriation for the departments of Labor,
Health and Human Services and Education, which was the subject of a
House-Senate-White House agreement Oct. 30 that was promptly
upended because of business leaders' objections to regulatory provisions
aimed at preventing ergonomic injuries.
The ergonomic issue was rendered moot when the Clinton administration
issued its own regulations on the matter, so the bill ought to pass in the
But now the Labor-HHS funds may get hung up over spending levels and
the desire of some Republicans to let the next president - Texas Gov.
George W. Bush (R), they presume - set the nation's priorities.
All such objections are ill-founded. Conservatives say that a previously
agreed upon Labor-HHS total of $106 billion was boosted by about $7
billion because the White House "blackmailed" Republicans just before
In fact, though, the new $113 billion figure was signed off on by Speaker
Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).
Along with White House officials, they toasted the deal with glasses of
Moreover, the $113 billion is easily affordable in view of expected
increases in the 2001 budget surplus from $268 billion to $300 billion.
Bush, of course, wants to use the surplus to cut taxes. But he also has
said he wants to double NIH and increase funding for education - another
GOP achievement in the Labor-HHS bill.
The so-called "merlot agreement" calls for a boost in education funds from
$38 billion last year to nearly $46 billion this year -
$3 billion more than President Clinton requested in his budget proposal.
If the Department of Education is funded merely at last year's levels under
a CR, hundreds of college students will lose Pell grants and school
districts will be deprived of anticipated aid in financing special education,
technology upgrades and coping with the impact of closing military
The endangered Labor-HHS agreement also calls for a $1 billion budget
increase for the Centers for Disease Control, the agency that tracks
infectious disease outbreaks like West Nile virus and develops programs
to cope with bioterrorism.
For NIH, Porter and Specter secured increases from $17.7 billion last year
to $20.5 billion this year. Clinton wanted to increase the budget to just
This is a pattern: Year in and year out, Clinton has low-balled medical
research funding. It's Congress that has raised the bar - a tribute to the
Last year, NIH was able to support 8,900 new research grants at
universities across the nation. With a 15 percent increase, it anticipated
supporting up to 9,500.
If the budget doesn't go up, however, only 5,000 new grants will be given
out. No one can be sure which projects will lose out, but they are likely to
include initiatives in neurodegenerative diseases, including Parkinson's,
and clinical trials for new treatments for childhood cancer and diabetes.
Moreover, off-again, on-again funding patterns increase the amount of time
and money that's spent on administration, as NIH and universities figure
out how to parcel out cutbacks.
Several options exist for avoiding devastating cuts. The easiest is for
Congress to simply pass the "merlot agreement," which Clinton
undoubtedly would sign.
Another is for Porter to carve out the funding increases for NIH and CDC,
as he did amid a budget impasse in 1995. If it's necessary, it would be a
fitting farewell tribute to him and Mack.
For the GOP, the least desirable alternative is for Clinton to refuse to sign
a long-term CR and insist that Congress pass a Labor-HHS bill. He's a
lame duck, but he'd have the upper hand one last
JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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