Funding Cancer Moonshot ‘Could Be a Problem’

Biden is heading up Obama's anti-cancer campaign. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Biden is heading up Obama's anti-cancer campaign. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 29, 2016 at 5:00am

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his aides are leading the White House push to cure cancer, but it’s officials in federal agencies who will dole out research dollars.  

In the just over a month since President Barack Obama announced the cancer “moonshot” effort during his final State of the Union address, Biden has been its public face. In the research committee, it’s widely believed that his involvement — and that of his successor — do give the program a shot at achieving what previous tries at a government-led quest to cure cancer did not.  

Yet even this program, though supported by Democrats and Republicans, could become the latest victim of partisan warfare.  

The vice president says he already has met or spoken with more than 200 representatives of the medical community, cancer research, patients groups, drug manufacturers and others. But a White House official said that neither he nor the president will make funding decisions.  

Sources at cancer-focused organizations said the Obama administration plans to dole out the “moonshot” program’s proposed $1 billion using the government’s long-established structure of allowing federal agencies to decide which researchers get funding to work on cures for specific kinds of cancers.  

“The president’s budget recommends most of the money be appropriated to the National Cancer Institute and the National Institutes of Health,” said Dick Woodruff, vice president of federal affairs at the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. “And they intend for the money go out in the normal, established way.”  

The kinds of private-sector entities that seek research dollars from Washington runs the gamut, from large hospitals to smaller research organizations to even smaller niche laboratories.  

Anti-cancer community representatives say the competition for federal research dollars always has been fierce. And they expect it will only intensify with the “moonshot” infusion.  

In short: More money. More competition.  

“It has been really difficult to get more funding for research, especially with the [federal] budget restraints,” Woodruff said, referring to domestic spending caps put in place by the 2011 Budget Control Act. “This moonshot does help because it places the priority of the issue right at Congress’ desk.”  

On Capitol Hill, members of both parties are backing the Biden-led push to finally begin curing diseases that the American Cancer Society estimated killed 589,430 Americans last year.  

But how do Republican lawmakers feel about the White House surprising them and seeking mandatory funds?  

“It could be a problem,” Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said Wednesday.  

GOP budget hawks view the proposed use of mandatory spending as an illegitimate way of skirting the budget caps.  

“While the proposals for curing cancer and combating opioid abuse are worthy goals, the president’s proposed methods are simply unacceptable budget gimmicks that irresponsibly rely on mandatory spending,” House Budget Committee member Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma said in a statement.  

“When lawmakers work together to confront these and other health concerns,” Cole added, “we will do so within the constraints of the budget caps previously agreed to by Congress and the president.”  

Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., agreed that there is “little appetite in Congress for mandatory spending that diminishes fiscal discipline and congressional oversight.”  

Even some medical advocacy groups appear taken aback — and nervous — about the White House’s gambit to pay for the cancer “moonshot” with GOP-opposed mandatory funding that would bust the caps. United for Medical Research, a health care coalition, has warned that “both strong annual appropriations plus the use of mandatory funding are needed to put the NIH back on a sustainable growth path.”  

What’s more, there is frustration on both sides of the aisle with the White House; the committees that ultimately will rule on the anti-cancer effort’s proposed dollars have been given scant information, aides say, about how they would be handed out to researchers.  

And the coming fight over the pot of money from which the additional “moonshot” research funding would come means yet another Washington argument over spending could put some or all of the program’s research dollars in question.  

“The Constitution gives Congress the power to decide how to spend the money,” Woodruff said. “Ultimately, that’s how this is going to work.”  

Melanie Zanona contributed.
Contact Bennett at and follow him on Twitter at @BennettJohnT.
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