The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has always enjoyed a sacrosanct status on Capitol Hill. Commonly referred to as the “crown jewel” by the members of the powerful House and Senate Appropriations Committees, the NIH has always benefited from increased funding—albeit short of resources needed to take full advantage of all research opportunities—while some other valuable federal programs were cut or level-funded.
Even President Clinton quickly learned the preferred status of the NIH on Capitol Hill. Both the House and the Senate soundly defeated Clinton’s attempts in his first budget to slash funds for several NIH institutes, including budgets for the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Congress not only rejected the President’s proposed cuts but also provided each institute with an appropriation above that of the biomedical research inflation index. The President’s subsequent budgets have called for NIH funding increases—albeit again insufficient to take full advantage of all research opportunities.
With the advent of the “Contract With America,” the tax-cutting component—not the NIH—became the crown jewel in the House of Representatives. In an effort to produce a balanced budget by the year 2002, both the House and the Senate Budget Committees placed the NIH on the chopping block. The House Budget Committee called for a 5% cut ($566 million) in NIH funding for FY 1996 and then a freeze in research funding at the FY 1996 level through 2000. The rationale for cutting NIH funding was based on the fact that between 1984 and 1994, NIH expenditures more than doubled. The Senate Budget Committee called for a 10% cut ($1.13 billion) in NIH funding for 1996 and then a freeze in research spending through 2002.
Thanks to the heroic initiative and leadership of Senator Mark Hatfield (R-OR), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, the Senate Budget Committee’s proposed cut in NIH research funding was overwhelmingly defeated on the Senate floor by a resounding vote of 85 to 14. While this battle was won, the war is far from over. The Senate and the House passed a compromise assumption of a 1% cut in NIH funding in FY 1996 and a 3% cut from the FY 1995 level in FY 1997-2002.
While the budget resolutions are important, the House and the Senate Budget Committees only set functional spending limits for specific categories and develop nonbinding assumptions. The Senate and the House Appropriations Committees determine how much money will be allocated for individual programs, including the NIH. In addition, both Houses of Congress have voted to further lower spending caps, which would make resources available to the NIH even tighter.
With continued help from both NIH supporters in Congress and grassroots mobilization in conveying the significance of increased NIH funding to control spiraling healthcare costs, to improve the health of all Americans, to enhance the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries, and to foster our nation’s competitiveness, the medical research community may be successful this year in staving off potential cuts for the NIH. However, this year has served as a wake-up call for all researchers and patients, that this is no longer business as usual. It is a new ball game. During debate on the Senate floor to restore the assumed cut for the NIH under the Senate budget resolution, one of the co-sponsors of Senator Hatfield’s amendment, Senator Nancy Kassebaum (R-KS), provided a glimpse of things to come. According to Senator Kassebaum, chair of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee that has jurisdiction over reauthorization of the NIH, “I intend to examine organizational and structural changes at the NIH which could lead to some budget savings.” NIH is scheduled for reauthorization next year.
The American Heart Association has been in the forefront in advocating the critical importance of increased funding for the NIH. The AHA efforts to influence the FY 1996 NIH funds, which technically starts on October 1, 1996, began in August 1994. In April and May 1995, more than 20 000 alerts were sent out to the AHA national board of directors, science councils, affiliates nationwide, Federal Legislative Grassroots Network, Grassroots Science Network, and to Mended Hearts and the Stroke Connection urging them to write their US senators and representatives to make heart and stroke research funding a top priority. In addition to our advocacy efforts in Washington, DC, AHA affiliates and science council members were encouraged to make telephone calls and personal visits to their members of Congress.
Now more than ever, the American Heart Association needs your help in communicating to Congress the critical importance of NIH to all Americans. Get out of your laboratories now and make your voices heard! Better yet, stay in your labs, but invite your US senators and representatives to tour your facility, show them research advances thanks to their support, and demonstrate the opportunities missed due to a shortfall in federal support. Patient involvement through such groups as Mended Hearts and the Stroke Connection are particularly effective in such tours.
- Copyright © 1995 by American Heart Association