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Senate Appropriators Question Administration About Sequester Impact; OMB Says NIH Research Jeopardized But Does Not Provide Details

Legislative Update
February 14, 2013

On February 14, new Senate Appropriations Chair Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) held a hearing on the impact of the sequester. Unless Congress acts, the sequester will be ordered by the President on March 1 and implemented by federal agencies by March 27, which is the same day that the six-month Continuing Resolution (CR) that funds the government in Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 at the FY2012 level expires. The sequester will cut most government programs by 5.1 percent.

Witnesses included representatives of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Department of Education, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Defense. Although Senator Mikulski commented that the Department of Health and Human Services was invited to appear but did not provide a witness, she noted that she had received letters from all major departments detailing the impact of the sequester. Virtually every one of the 30 Democratic and Republican members of the Committee attended and asked questions after witnesses provided formal testimony, which reflected a wide range of concerns about government programs and services.

Although Education Secretary Arne Duncan mentioned medical research in his testimony, the issue of the impact of the sequester on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was not raised until Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS) questioned witnessess. Senator Moran, who was recently named the Ranking Member on the Senate Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education (LHHS) Appropriations Subcommittee (replacing Senator Richard Shelby, R-AL), asked whether NIH would have discretion as to where the estimated $1.6 billion in cuts could be made, for example, to intramural and/or extramural programs, or across-the-board. Federal Controller Danny Werfel of the OMB responded that, although the Administration was still working out details with NIH Director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., “there will be hundreds fewer awards [research grants]” and that the sequester would “jeopardize jobs and prior research, as well as set back research into major diseases.”

Senator Mikulski thanked Senator Moran for asking about the NIH, stating that she was scheduled to meet with Dr. Collins on February 21 and would ask the very same questions.

Despite party affiliation, Committee members expressed grave concerns about the sequester, which was described as a “self-inflicted wound“ by Senator Mikulski and “the worst that could happen to this country outside of war,” by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). Senator Feinstein, who stated that the sequester would have the biggest effect on California, lamented that the “imprecision and uncertainty associated with the cuts are leading employers to make indiscriminate decisions due to lack of good data.” Several Senators probed the witnesses as to the ultimate cost of the sequester, with respondents noting that it could actually cost the government more in terms of lost productivity, staffing issues, sourcing of contracts, impact on local education and social services, security, etc.

In addition to blaming the Administration, many Senators also blamed themselves by admitting that the House and Senate had failed to take appropriate action. Although Senator Mikulski remarked that the day’s focus was on the sequester, she promised that under her leadership the Senate would proceed with “regular order” bills in the FY 2014 appropriations process. This was echoed by a unanimous show of hands when Senator Mikulski asked Committee members whether they preferred a regular order appropriations process.

In a February 7 Advocacy Day, Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO) Executive Director Sally Atherton, Ph.D. and Ava Bittner, O.D., Ph.D. (Johns Hopkins University/Wilmer Eye Institute) visited Senator Mikulski’s office and emphasized for staff member Christine Evans the impact of the sequester on vision research funding by the National Eye Institute (NEI) within the NIH.