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Jewish World Review Dec. 8, 2000 / 12 Kislev 5761

Morton Kondracke

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GOP is in danger of ruining
record on medical research -- FOR THE PAST three years, the Republican Congress has given a truly precious gift of hope to victims of serious diseases and their families by steadily increasing federal funding for medical research.

Now that record and up to 4,500 promising research projects are in jeopardy because Congress is considering merely funding the National Institutes of Health at last year's level. This amounts to a net cut after inflation.

"It would be a disaster for medical research and for public health," said retiring Rep. John Porter (R-Ill.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NIH.

Porter, along with his Senate counterpart, Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), and retiring Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), convinced their GOP colleagues three years ago to begin doubling the NIH budget over a five-year period.

Universities and scientists across the country have been encouraged to prepare proposals, hire personnel, buy high-tech equipment and make career decisions anticipating that funding would continue to rise at the rate of 15 percent annually.

The surge in research also has given hope to people afflicted with dreaded diseases, such as cancer, AIDS, Alzheimer's and diabetes, and their families. My wife suffers from advanced Parkinson's disease.

Suddenly, though, the funding increases are in peril. Instead of acting on four still pending appropriations bills in the current lame-duck session of Congress, some Republicans are talking about folding them into one long-term continuing resolution that would fund most of the major civilian departments of the federal government at last year's levels.

NIH funding is part of the appropriation for the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, which was the subject of a House-Senate-White House agreement Oct. 30 that was promptly upended because of business leaders' objections to regulatory provisions aimed at preventing ergonomic injuries.

The ergonomic issue was rendered moot when the Clinton administration issued its own regulations on the matter, so the bill ought to pass in the lame-duck session.

But now the Labor-HHS funds may get hung up over spending levels and the desire of some Republicans to let the next president - Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R), they presume - set the nation's priorities.

All such objections are ill-founded. Conservatives say that a previously agreed upon Labor-HHS total of $106 billion was boosted by about $7 billion because the White House "blackmailed" Republicans just before the election.

In fact, though, the new $113 billion figure was signed off on by Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.). Along with White House officials, they toasted the deal with glasses of merlot.

Moreover, the $113 billion is easily affordable in view of expected increases in the 2001 budget surplus from $268 billion to $300 billion.

Bush, of course, wants to use the surplus to cut taxes. But he also has said he wants to double NIH and increase funding for education - another GOP achievement in the Labor-HHS bill.

The so-called "merlot agreement" calls for a boost in education funds from $38 billion last year to nearly $46 billion this year -

$3 billion more than President Clinton requested in his budget proposal.

If the Department of Education is funded merely at last year's levels under a CR, hundreds of college students will lose Pell grants and school districts will be deprived of anticipated aid in financing special education, technology upgrades and coping with the impact of closing military installations.

The endangered Labor-HHS agreement also calls for a $1 billion budget increase for the Centers for Disease Control, the agency that tracks infectious disease outbreaks like West Nile virus and develops programs to cope with bioterrorism.

For NIH, Porter and Specter secured increases from $17.7 billion last year to $20.5 billion this year. Clinton wanted to increase the budget to just $18.8 billion.

This is a pattern: Year in and year out, Clinton has low-balled medical research funding. It's Congress that has raised the bar - a tribute to the GOP.

Last year, NIH was able to support 8,900 new research grants at universities across the nation. With a 15 percent increase, it anticipated supporting up to 9,500.

If the budget doesn't go up, however, only 5,000 new grants will be given out. No one can be sure which projects will lose out, but they are likely to include initiatives in neurodegenerative diseases, including Parkinson's, and clinical trials for new treatments for childhood cancer and diabetes.

Moreover, off-again, on-again funding patterns increase the amount of time and money that's spent on administration, as NIH and universities figure out how to parcel out cutbacks.

Several options exist for avoiding devastating cuts. The easiest is for Congress to simply pass the "merlot agreement," which Clinton undoubtedly would sign.

Another is for Porter to carve out the funding increases for NIH and CDC, as he did amid a budget impasse in 1995. If it's necessary, it would be a fitting farewell tribute to him and Mack.

For the GOP, the least desirable alternative is for Clinton to refuse to sign a long-term CR and insist that Congress pass a Labor-HHS bill. He's a lame duck, but he'd have the upper hand one last time.

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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