President Obama’s Budget Is Released with a Bang but Received with a Whimper

President Obama’s final budget, for FY17, was expected to continue the funding growth for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) seen in the FY16 appropriations bill (which increased the NIH budget by 6.6%, or $2 billion). Surely, with a President so firmly committed to advancing science, his last budget would be easy for the life sciences community to champion on Capitol Hill, right? Well, on February 9, President Obama released his final budget, not to cheers from the research community but to a collective “huh?”

So what happened? The President requested $33.1 billion for the NIH, a $1.825 billion increase over what he proposed in his FY16 budget. Of that, $825 million would be targeted for his presidential initiatives, including the cancer moonshot initiative, the Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI), and the BRAIN Initiative. Then $1 billion of the increase would be allocated across all the institutes and centers at the NIH.
This all sounds good until you look at the details.

The President proposes using mandatory money to fund the $1.825 billion increase. Typically, the NIH is funded with discretionary money. Congress has the authority to allocate discretionary money on a yearly basis to all departments and agencies under the federal government’s umbrella through the appropriations process. Mandatory money for the NIH does not currently exist. To fund a program with mandatory money, legislation needs to pass that would create a funding stream and find ways to pay for it. Think of mandatory money as what you spend on necessities such as a mortgage/rent, utilities, and loans and discretionary money as what remains of your weekly paycheck. You wouldn’t add an additional mandatory spending item to your household budget, such as a significantly more expensive house, without having a means to pay for it. This is the same principle applied to mandatory spending for programs funded by the federal government.

Furthermore, the President’s proposed mandatory funding of $1 billion to increase funding for all the institutes and centers at the NIH is based on what he recommended last year, not on what actually passed for FY16. Because what passed was $1 billion more than the President proposed, the so-called $1 billion increase he is recommending for FY17 really just maintains the FY16 level but with nonexistent mandatory money instead of discretionary money. Those who assumed there would be at least some actual increase in the NIH budget view this proposal as a cut.

All attention now turns to Congress, where the real work on the budget will be done. It is unclear what Congress will do given the tight financial boundaries it has to work within, but there is a level of optimism that the NIH will see some small increase in the FY17 budget. Francis Collins, Director of the NIH, stated, “It would be astounding if Congress approves a cut in NIH funding.”

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