Federal Update: Congress Breaks for Summer Recess

July 14, 2016

The House and Senate adjourn today for party conventions and the August recess, and we are reminded that presidential election years are rarely productive times on Capitol Hill. 

Despite a concerted, good-faith effort and even some movement on legislation of interest to the research university community, little has been completed this year. The annual federal funding bills, 21st Century Cures Act (offering the potential for longer-term increases in biomedical research funding), and COMPETES Act reauthorization (including authorizations for the National Science Foundation among others) progressed, but failed to reach the finish line, leaving lawmakers with a long to-do list before the end of this Congress. There will be limited time to act on remaining issues as Congress will return only for the month of September before breaking for the November election. A post-election lame duck session is expected but the motivations to confront key issues at that time will be largely determined by the election results and perceived advantages to either party prior to a new Congress or after. 

Upon return in September, approving funding for FY17 will be the most pressing issue facing Congress before the new fiscal year begins on October 1. We anticipate that funding the government will initially be done using a stopgap continuing resolution, which could run into December or early next year. While Appropriations Committees made notable progress, approving each of the 12 funding bills by early July – a record unmatched in recent years – partisan fights over policy provisions, gun control, and unresolved disagreements about the size of the federal budget have stood in the way of final action on any of the spending bills. That said, Committee deliberations and measures that emerged before the bills stalled continue to provide evidence of pockets of strong support for University priorities like research funding.

In particular, both the Senate and House bills provided NIH with relatively robust increases – $2 billion in the Senate and $1.25 billion in the House – sustaining the momentum from FY16’s $2 billion increase. The Senate bill also restored the summer Pell Grant program. In both the House and Senate bills, NSF, NASA, and DOE’s research accounts all remained relatively stable.

A chart with the exact figures and more details on the funding measures can be found here. Appropriators will no doubt be looking for ways to sustain these gains as they pull together a short-term funding measure in September, which might also include non-controversial funding bills, such as the Military Construction-Veterans Affairs measure. We anticipate a package of this sort that would extend funding into the lame duck Congressional session that is scheduled for mid-November.

Other legislation has faced similar hurdles. The 21st Century Cures Act passed the House overwhelmingly last July, providing NIH with $8.75 billion of mandatory funding over five years. However, the Senate committee has been struggling to find offsets to provide these increases, and has so far been unsuccessful. COMPETES – legislation authorizing NSF and other science agencies – has also been proceeding in fits and starts. A bipartisan bill with many positive elements was approved by the Senate committee at the end of June, but it is unclear if it will get floor time or avoid the partisan fights that produced such a controversial companion bill in the House. That measure met resistance when it passed the House in May 2015 due to concerns over inadequate funding levels and the favoring of some scientific disciplines over others, among other issues.  

Looking Ahead

It seems likely that any major decisions from the Congress will wait until after the election when members can better weigh their positions and influence. We will continue to work for early (or less late) decisions on funding issues so that agencies can move forward with their important work and we will stay in touch as there are developments. As always, please feel free to reach out with any questions to Suzanne Day (suzanne_day@harvard.edu) or Jon Groteboer (jon_groteboer@harvard.edu) on Harvard’s Federal Relations team in Washington.