September 08, 2013

What’s ahead on the Hill: The top five priorities for Congress before the end of 2013

Policy and Advocacy Officer

Now that Labor Day has passed and Washington, DC, is starting to cool down, members of Congress are filtering back into town from their August recess travels. Some were conducting district work, others were on vacation, and still others traveled to some of the hotspots for global health programming and research.

With just nine working days left in the congressional calendar before the beginning of fiscal year 2014, the only thing most in Washington can agree on is that there won’t be a long-term budget deal by October 1. This means that we’re looking at another continuing resolution to keep the government open for the rest of the calendar year.

Even beyond October, there are not very many days that Congress—particularly the House of Representatives—will be in session between now and the end of the year. What should Congress do with the limited working time it does have? Here are a few priorities.

With the limited time Congress has between now and the end of the year, lawmakers should focus on avoiding a government shutdown, passing a budget agreement, and supporting global health R&D programs.
With the limited time Congress has between now and the end of the year, lawmakers should focus on avoiding a government shutdown, passing a budget agreement, and supporting global health R&D programs.

1. Avoid a government shutdown.

First and foremost, Congress needs to pass legislation to keep the government open past September 30. Preferably, this legislation would support programs at least at their current levels. It should also include an expiration date far enough away to avoid yet more political battles related to the debt ceiling.

2. Pass a smart budget agreement that dodges sequestration while protecting key programs.

Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), must be exhausted from explaining over and over the dire consequences of budget sequestration at his agency. NIH’s purchasing power has been reduced by 25 percent compared with fiscal year 2003. At least 700 NIH grants that would have been funded in the absence of sequestration have been denied support. Collins has stated that key vaccine research programs that are near fruition are at risk because of sequestration funding cuts.

The case is similar at other US agencies that fund global health research and development (R&D). Congress must get past its political arguments and pass a budget that supports programs focused on saving lives and producing efficiencies and cost savings—thereby helping to avoid another round of sequestration cuts. Which leads us to…

3. Move legislation forward that creates efficiencies in global health and international development.

One priority that the Obama Administration and Congress agree on is using efficiencies gained by technology and innovation to create cost-savings and promote US interests. The 21st Century Global Health Technology Act and the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act both achieve those goals. Congress should move to see them through committee approval and toward full House and Senate consideration.

4. Sustain global health programs, including global health R&D.

Global health programs are recognized as effective and necessary by political champions of all stripes—particularly R&D for new global health technologies. Not only do these programs save lives at home and abroad, they also have a positive impact on local and global economic prosperity and save money in the long run. However, none of these positive effects is felt if budgets are indiscriminately slashed or if research is relegated to the back burner in order to save a few dollars upfront.

Government shutdowns and sequestration cuts that slow R&D here in the United States impact populations far beyond our national borders—effects that reverberate back to the US. In addition to economic and political consequences, there is a growing burden of neglected diseases in the United States. For instance, there are an estimated five million impoverished Americans who live with neglected tropical diseases, including a previously hidden burden of neglected diseases among the poor in the southern United States. Supporting research to develop new health tools will help fight these diseases both at home and abroad.

No one expects large budget increases this year, but Congress can halve the negative effects that even small decreases have by sustaining funding for global health and health research programs.

5. Act on the good stuff.

Let’s end on a positive note. Recently at the US Agency for International Development’s Saving Lives at Birth Development XChange, author Dan Heath gave a TED-talk-like presentation on a model of thinking that does not get nearly enough emphasis: Instead of focusing on the problems, find the successes. As Heath put it, "Find a bright spot, and clone it."

Congress appears to be at a standstill due to disagreements over budget levels, immigration programs, national security, and a host of other issues. However, members of Congress have the opportunity and the means to shake their obstructionist reputation and make progress on items they agree on—including supporting innovative global health research. There are lots of areas that Congress by and large agrees on, but which rarely make headlines. Members need to start acting on such unifying issues such as global health R&D and advance legislation that can have a positive impact on people’s health around the world.