Spending Standoff Keeps NIH Chimps in Lockdown

Posted October 25, 2013 at 11:47am

About 60 chimpanzees housed at research facilities in Louisiana for the National Institutes of Health are due to move to a special sanctuary, a kind of retirement they’ve been granted after a grim lifetime as laboratory test subjects.

Waiting behind them are more than 300 chimpanzees now housed at sites in New Mexico, Texas and Louisiana. Their retirement is part of a widely admired plan the NIH announced in June that has now gotten tied up in the bitter political battles that have locked up spending bills on Capitol Hill. Without a change in a restriction set by a 13-year-old law on chimp sanctuaries, the NIH is unable to shift dollars, effectively putting the move on hold for at least the next few months.

This is one of the countless tweaks, instructions, shifts and adjustments in federal policy that likely would have been included in annual appropriations legislation — if Congress in fact still cleared regular spending bills. Appropriations measures, which need to be renewed each year, once routinely provided a quick path for updating a slew of older laws to meet current needs.

But the chronic budget battles of recent years have derailed the appropriations process, with fights over the annual caps for the federal government’s operating expenses often persisting months beyond the start of these new budget years.

The broad effect of derailed appropriations can be plain enough — agencies stumbling along with misplaced priorities and government departments trying to adjust spending across programs through the reprogramming authority that allows them to move funds between accounts.

But there is little appetite these days for adding many unrelated policy fixes to the stopgap continuing resolutions, which have been used to fund much of the government in the absence of completed annual appropriations.

The legislative fix needed to move the NIH chimpanzees almost made the high bar set for add-on provisions, or anomalies, for the fiscal 2014 continuing resolution (PL 113-46), but was eventually dropped from the measure, aides say.

The provision would have given the NIH the reprogramming authority needed to shift money within its roughly $10.5 million annual budget for chimpanzee care.

This legislative fix alone, with no new funds, would let the NIH carry out its plan to retire most of its chimpanzees now that advances in laboratory science have largely put testing on them in the past.

The retirement of the chimpanzees — many of which have spent their lives in captivity, from testing labs to sanctuaries — has been highly popular and it’s a good economic move for the NIH. Retiring the chimpanzees to a sanctuary will in time bring down the NIH’s expenses, because caring for them at laboratory-related sites is more expensive.

“Moving these chimps to the sanctuary makes scientific, ethical and economic sense,” said Kathy Hudson, deputy director for science, outreach, and policy at the NIH.

Without the needed legislative fix, the NIH now is rapidly approaching a $30 million cap set in a 2000 law (PL 106-551) on cumulative costs to support its retired chimps in the federal sanctuary system, with much of the funding already spent on startup costs for the program. This means the NIH chimpanzees now housed at the working research sites in Texas and Louisiana remain there, while there’s an increasingly urgent question of how to keep paying for the care of about 159 NIH chimpanzees already at their retirement site, on the outskirts of Shreveport, La.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is pushing in two ways to get the 2000 relocation law revised.

As chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Harkin is in charge of the panel that writes new regulations and authorizes policy for the NIH. He has forwarded to this panel a bill (S 1561) that would let the NIH exceed the $30 million cap on chimpanzee sanctuary costs if doing so would decrease the total cost of supporting these animals through fiscal 2023. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the panel’s ranking Republican, co-sponsored the measure.

As chairman of the Senate Labor, Health and Human Services and Education Appropriations Subcommittee, Harkin is also in charge of the NIH budget. He wrote into his fiscal 2014 Labor-HHS-Education spending bill (S 1284) a provision that would effectively put on hold the $30 million cap and let the NIH begin moving more chimps to the Louisiana sanctuary.

The big hurdle, however, is that the Labor-HHS-Education bill that would provide the most direct path for changing the Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance and Protection Act cap is perhaps the most controversial of the 12 appropriations bills and has come nowhere near the floor in recent years.

In March, Democratic and Republican leaders opted to dodge some divisive questions about the implementation of the 2010 health law (PL 111-148, PL 111-152) by leaving the fiscal 2013 Labor-HHS-Education bill unfinished. It was one of seven appropriations bills covered by a long-term CR in the fiscal 2013 wrap-up package (PL 113-6) enacted in March.

That also put on hold almost all of the changes, many of which had bipartisan support, that have been included in the bill.

The odds are high that the fiscal 2014 Labor-HHS-Education bill may also end up in a kind of legislative holding pattern in this stalemate.

Appropriators likely will have only a few weeks to wrap up a fiscal 2014 package, with the final spending cap for the budget year expected to be resolved in December by the budget conference committee. The time constraints and lingering feud over the health law may then severely limit how many policy changes Harkin can make through fiscal 2014 Labor-HHS-Education appropriations, which may again be covered by a CR.

That means programs funded by this bill will miss out on some chances to improve efficiency through tweaks that would have been made fairly easily in a new appropriations law, aides say. There’s great skepticism of anomalies added to CRs, and the bar for getting them into these measures remains high.

That’s also been a hurdle for Harkin’s bid to shift servicing of graduate medical student loans from the Health Resources Services Administration to the Education Department, which has an entire office dedicated to this kind of work. HRSA’s Health Education Assistance Loan program ended in 1998. Moving the legacy loans to the Education Department would reduce duplication of federal student loan servicing and may make collection more efficient.

Harkin is a rare example of a lawmaker who is both the top authorizer and top appropriator for a set of programs. There are times when the House and Senate spending committees overstep and anger the leaders of committees that have jurisdiction for writing rules for federal programs, which raises cries against the practice of “authorizing on appropriations” bills. But appropriators also work in concert with authorizers, who want to see a change or extension made for an existing law more quickly than they might be able to do through authorizing legislation.

“We’re not always doing work for ourselves. We’re putting items in the bills for the other members and items that the authorizers want in there,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., a House appropriator. “You eliminate all of that good work if we just enact a CR. It limits the ability of the House, and of Congress, to impact how the agencies and departments run. We give up a lot of our oversight authority by passing CRs.”

Dent pushed to include language in the fiscal 2014 CR that would allow the federal government to continue to sell helium for another year, a cause important to Lehigh Valley, Pa.-based Air Products & Chemicals Inc. He got an amendment that would have accomplished this into the fiscal 2014 Interior-Environment appropriations bill in July.

In the end, however, House Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., got a law (PL 113-40) through to extend the helium program.

“The authorizers got it done,” Dent said. “Thank goodness, because the helium program would have expired.”