WASHINGTON — Dr. Larry Corey is a virologist and infectious-disease specialist who devoted years to a yet-unfulfilled quest for an HIV vaccine.
But the president of Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center lately has been preoccupied with a vexing challenge of a different sort: the $85 billion fiscal ax known as sequestration.
Corey is one of hordes of advocates for various interest groups who have been descending on Washington, D.C., to argue against the spending cuts, a mandatory diet planted in 2011 as a poison pill to encourage a deal — which never materialized — to reduce the deficit in exchange for raising the federal debt ceiling.
Corey met with Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell and Republican Reps. Dave Reichert of Auburn and Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane. He repeated what he’d already told reporters and editorial writers and written in an open letter to Congress — that the cuts are shortsighted and harmful.
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“We are going to lose a generation of researchers,” Corey said. “You can’t expect that this will not have a major impact.”
Worried representatives from other groups, ranging from Goodwill Industries to the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, also have trekked to the Capitol. They hunted for information from supportive lawmakers and leaned on fence-sitting members to sustain funding.
Last week, the Senate and the House hashed out a stopgap spending bill to keep the federal government open past this Wednesday. The funding, which covers the remainder of the current fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, keeps the across-the-board budget cuts largely intact.
Under sequestration, both domestic and defense programs face automatic budget cuts, ranging from about 5 percent to as much as 8 percent. Mandatory programs, such as Medicare or welfare benefits, are exempt. But a host of discretionary spending programs must be reduced.
But Corey and others see a bigger fight ahead over the budget for fiscal 2014 and beyond. Senate Democrats, led by Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray of Washington state, and her counterpart in the House, Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, have drawn up vastly different long-term blueprints for how much the federal government ought to tax and spend.
Murray’s budget does away with the sequester and raises taxes on businesses and upper-income Americans while also reducing spending in other ways. The Ryan budget does not raise taxes, keeps the sequester and makes sharp cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and nondefense programs.
Under one calculation by The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan anti-deficit group, the government under Ryan’s 10-year vision is $4 trillion slimmer than one Murray has in mind.
On Thursday, the House passed the Ryan budget without a single Democratic vote. All four GOP House members from Washington, including Reichert and McMorris Rodgers, voted for it. Senate Democrats promptly voted down Ryan’s plan and then just before dawn Saturday approved Murray’s budget instead. Neither budget resolution will become binding unless the two chambers reconcile the bills, which is unlikely.
The recent political antics over the budget have been difficult to follow — and even harder to stomach — for people whose careers depend on predictable federal funding.
“It’s crazy planning,” said John Clark, chairman of the biological structure department at the University of Washington School of Medicine.
Clark rues that sequestration is even part of the political lexicon. He fears the cuts may force him to lay off one researcher from his lab soon. And he’s equally dismayed at the prospect that future budget uncertainties could upend carefully planned experiments, some of which are paid for by grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation.
So last week, Clark broke away from teaching and research to join Chuck Frevert, a fellow medical-school faculty member, to fly to the Capitol to advocate on behalf of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.
The pair swept through the offices of Cantwell, Murray, Reichert and McMorris Rodgers as well as Reps. Suzan DelBene, D-Medina, and Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, handing out fact sheets and pleading for fiscal prudence. The lawmakers, Clark said, expressed support for research, though without specific promises.
“There is nothing good about sequestration (for) the scientific activities in my laboratory, my department, my school or my university,” Clark said.
Murray’s clout in the Senate means she gets buttonholed by advocates more often than many of her peers. Other members, such as Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, meanwhile, get targeted as moderates open to possible persuasion, said Joan Entmacher, vice president for family economic security at the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, D.C.
The Women’s Law Center is a private nonprofit that receives no federal support. But it’s part of a national coalition of community, labor, anti-poverty and other groups that have united to protect funding for children’s nutrition, domestic-violence programs and other social services.
In the Puget Sound region, some of the most visible sequestration pain likely will fall on universities and research institutions. It is not clear, with the sequestration debate still churning, how much money facilities like The Hutch or the University of Washington might lose.
In fiscal 2011, American universities spent a record $65.1 billion on research and development, according to the most recent survey by the National Science Foundation. Nearly two-thirds of that was paid for by federal taxpayers. An additional 20 percent was funded by the universities themselves, with the rest coming from state and local governments, businesses and private foundations.
The University of Washington ranked No. 3, with $1.15 billion in research and development spending, 83 percent of which was federal money. Johns Hopkins University was first, with $2.15 billion, followed by University of Michigan at Ann Arbor with $1.28 billion.
Congressional appropriations for the NIH reached a record $31.24 billion in fiscal 2010, from $17.4 billion just a decade earlier. Since then, however, NIH’s budget has been gradually shrinking, and it will need to drop an additional $1.5 billion, or about 5 percent, over the next six months.
Corey, of the Hutchinson Center, fears some Americans may not grasp the potential loss of lifesaving advances in medicine, The “Hutch,” for instance, pioneered bone-marrow transplantations for blood cancers.
“That was totally funded by the NIH,” Corey said.
The Hutch also conducted key clinical trials for the Women’s Health Initiative, an $800 million federal study that was one of the largest ever to focus on disease prevention. In 2002, researchers made the unexpected announcement that women taking estrogen-progestin pills to allay menopausal symptoms faced higher risks of breast cancer, strokes and heart attacks. The number of women on hormone therapy plummeted, Corey said, more than offsetting the cost of the entire study in prescription costs alone.
Keeping commitment to that kind of public investment, Corey said, “says something about our values and our culture.”
Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or firstname.lastname@example.org