House Lawmakers Criticize Trump's Bid to Cut NIH, CDC Budgets

Kerry Dooley Young

March 14, 2019

WASHINGTON — House lawmakers who will write the next spending bill for federal medical programs criticized the Trump administration's bid to cut the budgets of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

At a Wednesday hearing of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS), and Education, Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) told HHS Secretary Alex Azar, who was testifying before the subcommittee, why Congress has increased funding to NIH for the past several years. The NIH budget has ticked up in annual increments of about $2 billion to $3 billion, rising from about $30 billion in fiscal 2015 to $39.3 billion in fiscal 2019. The White House asked Congress to cut NIH funding to $34.4 billion in fiscal 2020.

Congress' recent ramp-up of NIH funding is meant to do more than robustly fund promising science already underway in labs supported with federal money, said Cole, who previously served as chairman of the House labor-HHS-education appropriations subcommittee. The increases are meant to encourage younger scientists to stick with research careers by demonstrating that lawmakers have a serious commitment to NIH's work, Cole said.

The proposed NIH cut "would reverse this trend and send the wrong signals to young scientists," Cole told Azar, adding that he didn't believe Congress would enact the requested reduction sought by President Donald Trump.

Cole became the ranking Republican member of the House labor-HHS-education appropriations subcommittee when Democrats took control of the House. In that role, he maintains a powerful influence on the budgets of federal medical agencies.

Cole also called the White House's bid to cut funding for CDC a "risky mistake."

The White House has proposed reducing CDC's fiscal 2020 funding to $5.3 billion for fiscal 2020 from about $6.6 billion in fiscal 2019.

Cole, who also serves on the defense appropriations subcommittee, framed this cut as being contrary to the aims of the White House's request to boost Pentagon spending. The proposed fiscal 2020 budget seeks to increase the defense department's spending by $33 billion, or 5%, from the current level, to $718 billion.

"I consider this every bit as much of a defense budget as anything at DOD [US Department of Defense]," Cole said of CDC's fiscal request.

"As I've said on many, many occasions, we're much more likely to die in pandemics than in terrorist attacks. So this is really the frontline of defense, I think, for the American people. And in an era of Ebola and Zika and goodness knows what else, I think this is not a place that we want to be reducing spending," he said.

Bipartisan Criticism

Democrats on the House labor-HHS-education panel also strongly criticized Trump's bids to cut these agencies' budgets. House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey (D-NY) suggested reapplying the president's request for $8.6 billion for a border wall to medical research.

Azar replied that there could be "efficiencies" to be found in the NIH budget, given its recent increases. But then he conceded that he too has concerns about the cut, adding that he had been tasked to "make tough choices" in the budget.

"Excuse me, sir, but I listened very carefully. I understand your sincerity, but you're going to cut the NIH and put $8.6 billion in a border wall?" Lowey said. "This is absurd."

Immigration, Gun Safety

Democratic lawmakers, including Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), grilled the HHS secretary about policies for handling cases of children who were separated from their parents during immigration attempts. DeLauro, who is the chairwoman of the labor-HHS-education appropriations subcommittee, said there will be a hearing on the Unaccompanied Children program run by HHS.

Although much of immigration enforcement is handled by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), HHS oversees the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). ORR in recent years has been coping with an increase in the number of children attempting to travel alone from Central America to the United States. Owing to a Trump administration policy, ORR also has had to handle cases in which children were taken from parents who were trying to emigrate.

In a January report, the inspector general for HHS noted that a June 2018 court order mandated that the federal government identify and reunify separated families who met certain criteria. As of December 2018, the department had identified 2737 children who were separated from their parents and who must be reunified. This number does not represent the full scope of family separations, according to the HHS inspector general's report.

The report also noted that in the months following the court decision, ORR received at least 118 children who had been separated by DHS and who were referred to ORR for care.

"HHS needs to return the Unaccompanied Children program to its core mission of taking care of vulnerable children and placing them with sponsors, rather than being an immigration enforcement agency. We have to understand how this happened, why it happened, and who is responsible," DeLauro said at the hearing. "What has been the impact on children? What are its long-term consequence, including mental health and trauma? How do we stop this? How do we fix it? What resources are necessary?"

DeLauro also noted that the labor-HHS-education subcommittee last week held a hearing on the need for research on gun safety. She said she intends to have CDC and NIH do more on this topic.

"Gun violence is a public health emergency," DeLauro said at the Wednesday hearing on the HHS budget. "In 2017 alone, guns killed nearly 40,000 Americans. That same year, opioid overdoses killed 47,000 Americans. We have dedicated immense public dollars, especially in this subcommittee, to addressing and examining one, but not the other."

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