A Good Bill with Bad Implications

Since 2011, Representative William Lacy Clay (D-MO) has introduced a bill in each Congress with a very noble goal: to require that appointments to federal agency advisory committees be made without consideration of political involvement or party membership. Unfortunately, the good intentions also could mean significantly more paperwork for those on U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) study sections and an added administrative burden for the NIH.

The ASCB has been working to educate Congress about the implications of this bill since first learning about it. 

Unlike in previous years, Rep. Clay’s bill, H.R.70, the Federal Advisory Committee Act Amendments of 2017, has been speeding through the halls of Congress. It was passed by the full House of Representatives one day after being introduced, an achievement that is almost unheard of, especially when the sponsor is a member of the minority party. 

Only after being approved by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs did the bill get the attention of the NIH advocacy community. If the bill were to become law, it would have significant inadvertent consequences for the peer review system at the NIH and the Food and Drug Administration. The bill is now one of a number of bills that could be passed by the full Senate at any time. The next step after Senate passage would be the White House to be signed into law by the president.

In letters to the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), ASCB President Jodi Nunnari and CEO Erika Shugart outlined the implications of the bill. H.R.70 “would change a peer reviewer’s status from ‘consultant’ to ‘Special Government Employee.’ It is estimated that this change in status would require each scientist who agrees to serve on a peer review study section to complete 13 forms, totaling 90 or more pages in length. Once completed, it would take the federal government from 6 months to even a year to review and approve the forms.”

During the ASCB Leadership Hill Day after the May Council Meeting, Hill Day participants raised concerns about the bill with senators and Senate staff. In the weeks following the Hill Day, we have heard from the office of at least one senator who is concerned about the implications of the bill on research in his state.

About the Author:

Kevin M. Wilson serves as Director of Public Policy and Media Relations for The American Society for Cell Biology. He's worked as the Legislative Director for U.S. Congressman Robert Weygand (D-RI) and as a Legislative Assistant for U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI). He has a BA in Politics and American Government from the Catholic University of America. Email: kwilson@ascb.org