Legislative Update – Appropriations and the Senate innovation agenda

As discussed last week, the appropriations process continues to progress behind closed doors. However, some details are emerging.

  • All appropriations subcommittees have received their 302(b) allocations, and those allocations have been described to me by congressional staff as “fair.”
  • The allocation for the Labor, Health and Human Services appropriations subcommittee, which funds the National Institutes of Health, is said to be “generous.” The original allocation for L-HHS had been below the fiscal year 2015 level, but it seems the Bipartisan Budget Agreement has allowed lawmakers to undo that loss. In fact, the L-HHS appropriation may be generous enough to provide an increase to the NIH in the vicinity of $2 billion to $3 billion a real possibility. (A $3 billion increase to the NIH would be a 10 percent increase).
  • Policy riders, which are changes in policy included in spending bills, often are points of contention among members of Congress. One Democratic staffer told me, “We’re in the minority in the House and in the Senate. There are going to have to be some unpopular riders accepted in order to get this package done.”
  • Appropriations subcommittees are supposed to deliver their completed bills to leadership by Nov. 20. There still will be quite a bit of work to do after the Thanksgiving recess to pass this $1.1 trillion spending package before funding runs out on Dec. 11.

Of course, the relief provided by the BBA does not guarantee that the appropriations process will succeed. Congress may not finish its work on time, and a one-week continuing resolution may have to be passed to provide the extra time necessary to get the FY16 spending package completed. Less likely, but still plausible, is that the appropriations process will fail and a yearlong continuing resolution will have to be used to fund the government.

Beyond the appropriations process, the U.S. Senate continues to work on its version of the 21st Century Cures Act passed by the U.S. House this past summer. As we understand it, negotiations on the bill slow down because of disagreement on increasing NIH funding. There is bipartisan support for increasing NIH funding; however, the level of funding and the legislative mechanism for ensuring the money is received by the NIH remains in flux. Our contacts indicate that reports of the legislation’s demise are overstated. Senators appear to be focusing on the appropriations process to avoid a government shutdown. Once funding for the next fiscal year is sorted out, senators may return to the negotiating table with (hopefully) a renewed interest in passing legislation that may help out the scientific community.

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