NIH Budgets and Zero Sum Games

The ridiculous belief that the government can run out of money–which then leads to stupid austerity policies such as spending caps–is really harmful to scientific research. I’ve also described how Republicans have used these imaginary austerity constraints* have been used to pit scientific research against feeding the poor.

Well, it appears the organizations that supposedly look out for scientists’ interests have finally either figured this out–or gained the courage to admit this (boldface mine):

Why are we applauding Congress authoring and moving bills through committee when that is their job? Well, over the past several years, the LHHS appropriations bills haven’t even been released much less voted through subcommittee. That’s because other programs funded in these bills, like the Affordable Care Act, Planned Parenthood, food stamps and others, are so politically charged they often prevent a bill from being debated [that is, Republicans want to kill these things].

This year the NIH received significant support. The House Appropriations committee proposed to fund the NIH at $31.1 billion, a $1.1 billion increase over fiscal 2015, and 10 percent higher than President Obama’s request. The Senate Appropriations committee nearly doubled the House increase with a proposed funding level of $32 billion for the NIH in FY16. That’s the funding level for which advocates have largely been asking for two years! Queue up the Steve Miller Band because my friends, it’s time to “Take the Money and Run!”

…These funding bills aren’t going anywhere. We live in a period of budget austerity and spending caps. These caps mean that increases to one program mean budget cuts to others. So for all of the agencies like the NIH that would receive budget increases, several would also be cut. As expected, many of the programs that would be cut are these politically charged programs.

First, Obama will not sign into law any bill that disassembles parts or all of the signature policy initiative of his presidency. For example, the House LHHS bill defunds the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. AHRQ is an independent agency that researches various disease treatments and identifies which are most effective from a health and economic perspective. AHRQ’s work helps identify appropriate treatment plans for patients with a variety of health problems, and is a critical component to the ACA.

Beyond this, the House and Senate appropriations committees propose funding levels for the entire LHHS bill that are billions below FY15 levels. These cuts are not just to ACA programs, but to a variety of public health programs across the board. Calling the caps unnecessary and impossible to appropriately fund federal spending, Obama has threatened to veto every spending bill that does not fund above the level of the spending cap.

In support of Obama, Senate Democrats plan to filibuster every appropriations bill that comes to the floor of the Senate. Democrats want to find a deal which lifts the spending caps, if not eliminate them altogether, and their plan is to obstruct all spending bills to force Republicans to negotiate. Failure to negotiate will lead to a government shutdown that Democrats feel will hurt Republicans entering a Presidential election year.

In better days without a political lightning rod like the ACA or without austerity measures like the spending caps, the story might end there. NIH gets a budget increase, scientists see pay lines improve, Americans live healthier lives thanks to biomedical research. But these aren’t the days we live in. The politics surrounding programs outside of the NIH mean that these bills are unlikely to be signed into law.

This is a fight the Democrats should have fought six years ago. So, now a six percent increase in funding, which even if it entirely went to the extramural program, would increase paylines from, let’s say ten percent to… eleven percent (WHEEeee…hunh?) gets killed by the combination of austerity Republicans and previously gormless Democrats.

I won’t speak as to why most biologists support Democrats politically, but, if self-interest plays any role, it’s pretty obvious who the lesser evil is.

What’s disappointing about this ASBMB article–and no doubt they don’t want to criticize the Republicans who control the House and Senate–is that there really is a bad actor here: the Republicans. What isn’t said is why Republicans want to kill AHRQ: because their Uruk-hai base (some of whom are actually in Congress) believes determining how well different medical treatments work will lead to ‘death panels’ (as opposed to for-profit health insurance companies who historically have had patients’ best interests at heart. Or something). This AHRQ lunacy also means the federal organization best suited to determining how to improve infection control–a critical component in preserving the power of antibiotics–won’t be tackling that important issue.

Yes, some Democrats, including Obama, went along with the austerity crap. While in 2010 they might not have had much of a choice, many Democrats including Obama, on healthcare, deficit spending, and finance reform (and law enforcement), set up the circumstances for the disastrous election of 2010–which led to the austerity spending caps. That said, if Republicans had maintained a modicum of sanity, as well as resisted the opportunity to ‘cut government’ in a time when we needed more, not less, deficit spending, we as scientists wouldn’t be in this mess.

I guess we can kiss that 0.6% increase in funding rate goodbye…

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