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Jewish World Review Oct. 21, 1999 /11 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Morton Kondracke

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Porter, Mack: heroes on medical research -- THE MEDICAL RESEARCH CAUSE is losing two of its greatest congressional champions next year with the retirements of Rep. John Porter, R-Ill., and Sen. Connie Mack, R-Fla. -- which makes it vital to pass significant funding increases before they leave.

Porter's announcement last week that he's leaving Congress after 11 terms caused shock and dismay among research advocates even though they knew GOP term limits required him to step down as chairman of the subcommittee that funds health programs.

"He's a total hero on medical research," said Marguerite Donoghue, a lobbyist representing cancer and other disease groups. "His departure creates a big void."

Medical research advocates had anticipated that Porter would remain on the House Appropriations Committee and use his influence to continue working toward doubling the budget of the National Institutes of Health over a five-year period.

He apparently decided to quit because he was likely to become chairman of the committee's foreign operations subcommittee overseeing foreign aid -- which he supports but which House Republicans constantly want to slash.

Rumors that GOP leaders planned to deprive him any subcommittee chairmanship because of his moderation and independence are false, leadership aides say. "He is a moderate and he has criticized us a lot," said one top aide, "but he's been solid lately. Other people might not get a subcommittee or a full committee they're in line for, but not Porter."

In fact, Porter is heavily responsible for saving the GOP from a major embarrassment -- deep cuts in medical research -- and converting it into a substantive and political achievement.

In early 1995, the new House Republican majority passed a budget resolution calling for a 5-percent cut in funding for the National Institutes of Health and no increase for the next four years -- a net cut, after inflation, of 25 percent. The Senate passed a 10-percent first-year cut.

Porter, newly installed as chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, arranged for a half-dozen top U.S. scientists and CEOs of biomedical companies to meet with then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. Gingrich, according to one scientist, declared, "There isn't a program in the U.S. government that can't be cut by 5 percent."

The CEOs and scientists explained, however, that federally funded basic research was vital to the growth of the economy, including the pharmaceutical industry.

By the end of the meeting, Gingrich promised to reconsider the cuts and even showed around a book chapter he had written on the key role technology would play in America's future.

Later, Porter lobbied Gingrich and then-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., and got NIH and the Centers for Disease Control included in a bill containing items to be protected from planned budget cuts. In fact, NIH got a 5.7 percent increase.

Thanks to Porter and his opposite number in the Senate, Appropriations subcommittee on Labor, HHS, Education and related agencies Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., NIH budgets have been rising ever since -- by an astounding 14.6 percent last year.

In the Senate GOP leadership, Mack has been a major advocate for doubling NIH over five years. He announced earlier this year that he will retire after 12 years in the Senate and six in the House.

Mack became a medical research advocate in the most painful way possible -- his brother and father died of cancer and he, his wife and daughter are all cancer survivors. Mack often tells audiences how NIH-funded research has developed treatments that completely eliminate melanomas of the type that killed his brother.

Porter, outwardly formal and unemotional, became a research advocate after listening to moving testimony in public hearings before his subcommittee. He remembers especially one woman in her 50s who appeared with her husband, a former Navy test pilot. The woman testified that a few years before, her husband had been afflicted with Alzheimer's disease.

"Now the love of my life does not even recognize me," Porter quoted her as saying. "His life expectancy is 35 years. I will care for him for the next 35 years but he won't know who I am."

In an interview this summer, Porter also recalled a set of twin children afflicted with rare Huntington's disease. "We saw them and heard from their parents for a few years," Porter said. "The condition is invariably fatal and, beforehand, they lose any control of their bodies or bodily functions.

"When you see people like these and you go out and see what the scientists at NIH are doing, you can't help but think that medical research is the best money that the federal government spends on anything."

Having succeeded last year in boosting NIH by 14.6 percent -- which would put the agency on a track to double over five years -- Porter, Mack and Specter have hopes of doing a repeat this year and another one next year.

If they succeed, it will establish a legacy to be proud of -- not only for them, but for Congress as a whole.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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