NIH may be spared from sequestration, Cardin says

The Maryland Democrat fielded questions from National Institutes of Health employees at a town-hall meeting at the agency's Bethesda headquarters.

One of the National Institutes of Health’s staunchest supporters on Capitol Hill said there’s a good chance Congress will lift sequestration caps on the agency.

“I think sequestration makes no sense anywhere. I’d like to get rid of it altogether,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said of the across-the-board budget cuts scheduled to go back into effect during fiscal 2016.

Yet he acknowledged that might not happen in the bitterly divided Congress.

“If we can’t get the whole loaf, are there some programs that we can agree are critical enough that they shouldn’t be part of sequestration? We certainly think NIH falls into that category,” he said.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) speaks to employees at The National Institutes of Health’s Bethesda, Maryland, campus. (Photo by Emily Kopp/Federal News Radio)
In addition to conducting its own medical research, NIH’s grants support jobs in both the private sector and academia. The agency is active in nearly every state, giving it broad, bipartisan support, Cardin said.

Cardin and Maryland’s other senator, Barbara Mikulski, have sponsored legislation that would exempt NIH from sequestration.

Cardin spoke to NIH employees at a town-hall meeting Thursday at the agency’s Bethesda, Maryland, headquarters. While introducing Cardin, NIH Director Francis Collins said he was more optimistic about the agency’s prospects now than during the senator’s last town hall in 2013, shortly after sequestration went into effect. President Barack Obama has proposed a $1 billion increase in the agency’s budget for fiscal 2016.

The main challenge in Congress now, said Cardin, is to pass a full-year budget that gives federal agencies some predictability.

“People are looking for careers outside of the federal government and that has to stop. The best way is to pass a real budget,” he said. “We need a blueprint where we can have reasonable growth in nondefense discretionary spending so you have a glide path. You need to know you’ll have ongoing support.”

But the budget resolution approved by the Senate last week before it went on a two-week recess does not lay the groundwork for that vision. Instead, it proposes cuts to programs, the workforce and federal benefits to shrink the federal deficit.

“We’re going to have to make compromises,” Cardin said in an interview following the event. “It’s not going to be the budget that I want or that we passed last week. At the end of the day, we hope they’ll get the resources they need.”

Sequestration and the 2013 shutdown have made federal employees jittery about their agencies’ financial prospects. In addition, calls for smaller government have become louder in the Republican-led Congress. Therefore it’s no surprise that the concerns that employees and NIH leaders shared with Cardin centered on money.

NIH concerns by the numbers

  • $6 billion
  • In 2003, NIH could fund one out of every three projects that meets its criteria. It now funds one out of six. Collins said, while he’s delighted that the president has made NIH a funding priority, the agency would need an infusion of $6 billion to regain the purchasing power it had 12 years ago.

    “We’ve lost about 23 percent of our purchasing power for biomedical research since 2003, basically from flat budgets eroded by the inflationary costs of doing research, which runs about 2 percent a year,” he said.

  • $15 million
  • Following some embarrassingly expensive federal conferences, the White House demanded increased oversight of employees’ travel.

    NIH scientists need to work with others across the country, but the new red tape has “slowed work to near paralysis,” one employee told Cardin.

    The new requirements for approval from senior NIH leaders have created an enormous paperwork burden and led to scientists missing out on early-bird registrations at conferences, said Collins.

    “Add it up, it’s $15 million a year going into this process with, as far as I can tell, zero added value,” he said.

    Cardin acknowledged the problem, saying he would work within the congressional budget process to try to fix it.

    “We shouldn’t eliminate a tool that is important to advance research and innovation by putting down a blanket process that costs more money,” he said. “That makes no sense at all.”

  • 31 percent
  • Federal employees are but a fraction of NIH’s total workforce. Nationwide, the agency’s nearly 12,000 contractors make up 31 percent of its labor force.

    That means NIH is spending more money on management and company profits, contrary to what some in Congress believe would happen if they cut the size of the federal workforce, said one man who said he had worked as a contractor for NIH for more than five years.

    “In a quest to save money by reducing the size of government, they’ve outsourced,” he said.

    But he is paid just as much as a federal employee at the equivalent level on the General Schedule, he said. The agency is also paying his managers and his company to make a profit, he added.

    “If you hired us, it would save money for the government,” he said.

    Cardin said he agreed, adding that he would rather see that money spent on research on Ebola or Alzheimers’ disease.

    “It’s a no-brainer on cost. The contracting out has nothing to do with saving money. It has everything to do with a philosophy that government is bad, so let’s make it as small as possible, or appear to be as small as possible,” he said. “It’s a very illogical philosophy.”


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