POLITICS
09/19/2014 01:11 pm ET Updated Sep 20, 2014

Lawmakers Try To Save Science Funding Amid Rush To Restore Defense Spending

Allison Shelley via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- As pressure builds among the hawks in Congress to get rid of budget limits on defense spending, liberals in the House are making sure their own priorities aren't left underfunded.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation late Thursday that would effectively do away with the budget cap for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The bill, titled the Accelerating Biomedical Research Act, would replace the institute's existing budget limit with a much higher ceiling, one that would see funding for the NIH restored to the levels it would have reached had it kept up with inflation after 2003.

The bill, which mirrors one introduced in the Senate by the retiring Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), is a rebuke to the spending caps introduced by the Budget Control Act of 2011, which pared down both defense and non-defense spending alike. While it seems unlikely in today's climate that conservatives would suddenly abandon the spending reductions they were able to secure in hard-fought budget standoffs with the White House, there is a potential window for alterations.

That's because, as the U.S. continues to grow more involved in Iraq and Syria, lawmakers have started to demand a reconsideration of the BCA when it comes to defense. A proposal to raise defense spending could very well pass in Congress simply because of growing public concerns about the state of national security. But backers would undoubtedly get more political support if they paired a defense-spending hike with something from the non-defense discretionary bucket.

Enter the NIH. There is a long history of bipartisan support in Congress to enhance money for biomedical and scientific research. Some of the NIH's funding was restored in the budget deal completed this past winter, but the levels are still short of where they stood prior to the implementation of the Budget Control Act (and the implementation of sequestration). This past fiscal year, NIH funding stood at $29.9 billion. Adjusted for inflation, that's less funding than the NIH received during every year of the George W. Bush administration except the first.

President Barack Obama has called for NIH funding to be raised to $30.2 billion in the coming fiscal year. But that would still place it $300 million below where it stood in 2009.

DeLauro and Higgins' bill would effectively use a trigger mechanism to get around the limits set by the BCA. If the NIH is allotted funding in excess of $29.9 billion, then new caps would come into place. In fiscal year 2015, the cap would be raised by $3 billion. The next year, it would go up an additional $3.3 billion, and the year after that another $1.8 billion. These incremental cap hikes would go on until fiscal year 2021, when the final cap would stand at roughly $46.2 billion.

"One of my proudest accomplishments as a member of Congress is helping to double NIH's funding," DeLauro said in a statement, referring to legislation she helped to pass more than a decade ago. "Work supported by the NIH has saved the lives of countless Americans. Failure to invest in health research and disease prevention results in huge costs to our health, society, economy and knowledge itself. Congress must stop forcing the NIH to do more with less."

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