Passage of the Bipartisan Budget Agreement of 2015 – What it really means

Here in the policy office of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, we’ve received e-mails, phone calls and tweets asking if the new federal budget agreement will lead to an increase in the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation budgets. The answer is this: We don’t know.

Before jumping into the details of the Bipartisan Budget Agreement, let’s first briefly go through the federal budget process. There are three phases. First, Congress determines how much money the federal government will spend in the coming fiscal year. Second, the appropriations committees of the U.S. House and Senate determine how big of a slice of the pie each of the 12 appropriations subcommittees will get. These slices are called 302(b) allocations. The ASBMB is interested in the 302(b) allocations for the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education appropriations subcommittee and the Commerce, Justice and Science appropriations subcommittee, which fund the NIH and NSF, respectively. Finally, the individual appropriations subcommittees divvy up their slice of the pie on an agency-by-agency basis. In honor of Thanksgiving, think of the phases as pie à slice à bite.

Earlier this year, the House and Senate passed budgets, the appropriations committees set 302(b) allocations and the subcommittees drafted appropriations bills. How did the NIH fare? Pretty well, actually. The House proposed a $1 billion increase to the NIH’s budget, while the Senate proposed a $2 billion increase. The NSF also was slated to see an increase, although more modest. Despite this seemingly good news, the indications of a process soon to break down were becoming apparent. The difficulty for the appropriations process in general, and science-funding agencies specifically, were the changes to the fiscal 2016 302(b) allocations. For example, the L-HHS 302(b) allocation in the House was $4 billion less than FY15. This cut to the 302(b) plus the $1 billion proposed increase to the NIH meant $5 billion were cut from other critical, federally funded public-health programs. This is not ideal.

This conflict did not prevent the appropriations bills from passing their respective subcommittees, and some were even passed by the full appropriations committee. But these bills never came up for a final vote. Why? Senate Democrats filibustered to block voting on all spending measures to protest spending limits imposed by the restrictive FY16 302(b) allocations. These budgeting difficulties have their roots in the Budget Control Act of 2011, which instituted spending caps and sequestration, limited federal discretionary spending and placed a strain, not only on the agencies funded and their constituencies, but also on the appropriations process as lawmakers find it increasingly difficult to decide how to best spend limited dollars.

Recognizing the need for a change, Congress passed the BBA. Passage of the BBA allows Congress to increase spending on defense and nondefense programs, including potentially the NIH and the NSF, for FY16 and FY17. Passage also provides two years of fiscal stability and relief from sequestration

Congressional leadership and key committee staff members have said that the revised 302(b) allocations will not be made public, and the subcommittees will not publicly work on their individual slices. Instead, Congress will try to pass an omnibus spending bill—all 12 appropriations bills rolled into one massive spending package. We can speculate that the NSF and NIH will do well in an omnibus, but we can’t know that with any certainty since the key information is being kept from the public. We may not know exactly how agencies that we care about will fare until the very end of the process.

To that end, there will be a key role for our readers and all ASBMB members in this process. Once we have a clearer idea of what the NIH and NSF allocations will be, we will be encouraging you to contact your representatives encouraging either passage or opposition to the spending package.

In summary, the BBA is theoretically positive for the scientific community as it provides fiscal stability and relief from sequestration, but increases for the NIH and the NSF are not guaranteed. With the federal spending authority set to expire on Dec. 11, we expect an exciting and action filled end of November. Stay tuned!

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