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OAR Battle: Round Two

Broad, Brilliantly Coordinated Offensive Brings Sneaky Concession From Illinois' Rep. Porter


Threats 'Far From Over'

December 1996

When the Republicans took charge of Congress in 1994 and liberal stalwarts like Ann Richards of Texas and Mario Cuomo of New York went down in defeat, we feared the worst for AIDS programs under the jurisdiction of the federal government and newly Republican state houses across the country. AIDS research would come under attack by 104th Congress soon after it convened in January 1995.

Leading the attacks on AIDS research were Bob Livingston (R-LA), the fire-breathing, arch-conservative chairman of the Appropriations Committee of the House of Representatives, and John Porter (R-IL), a usually moderate member of his Party and long-time advocate for biomedical research who is chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee for Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies. These two men targeted the Office of AIDS Research (OAR) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Their goal was to weaken the OAR, which was chartered to lead our nation's AIDS research effort in 1993, by depriving it of control over NIH AIDS research funds. Under their plan, the Office would still continue to exist, but would lose the bulk of its executive authority when it lost "the power of the purse."

In 1995 TAG, along with other AIDS organizations and hundreds of AIDS researchers, including three Nobel Prize winners, mounted a valiant effort to keep Mr. Livingston and Mr. Porter from succeeding in their efforts to effectively destroy the OAR. We successfully enlisted the help of the moderate Republican leaders of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senators Mark Hatfield (R-OR) and Arlen Specter (R-PA), and the Clinton Administration who all supported a strong OAR. Sadly, our battle ended in failure that year as the zealots in the House refused to cede to their Senate colleagues or the White House and the OAR lost its control over AIDS research funds for the next fiscal year.

TAG and its allies didn't give up. We took the battle for the OAR into 1996, determined to win this time around. TAG Board member and Legislative Affairs Committee member, Barbara Hughes, reached out to the AIDS Foundation of Chicago to help us confront Mr. Porter on his home turf. Along with the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR), we held press conferences in Chicago and other key cities to alert local newspapers and television stations to the attacks on AIDS research supported by their own Congressmen. AmFAR even rolled out its spokeswoman, actress Sharon Stone, for a press conference in New York blasting the House of Representatives and garnered national attention. Upping the ante with Mr. Porter, TAG's artist-in-residence Joy Episalla designed an ad which informed his own constituents of Congress' attacks on AIDS research. The ad ran in a newspaper in the heart of Mr. Porter's district in the north shore suburbs of Chicago. TAG Board and Legislative Affairs Committee member Laura Morrison along with other Committee members, including Howard Lune and Paul Dietz, continued to get scientists from all over the country to weigh in with their Congressmen and Senators in support of the OAR.

In late September of 1996, we teetered on the edge of another defeat in the last-minute negotiations on the Omnibus Spending Bill for Fiscal Year 1997, which included funding for the NIH. We seemed to be in the same position that we had been in last year with Senator Specter and the White House arguing for the OAR's budget authority and Mr. Porter not budging an inch. We refused to surrender though, prodding the White House and Senator Specter to dig in their own heels. Finally, a compromise was reached which returned budget authority over the NIH AIDS program to the OAR and also granted the Office the new ability to transfer up to three percent ($45M) of the NIH AIDS budget between the NIH institutes all year long.

The compromise is a byzantine solution in which AIDS research dollars are "made available to the 'Office of AIDS Research' account," but do not appear as a line item in the federal budget. While the compromise accomplishes our goal of returning fiscal authority over the NIH AIDS program to the OAR, it also allows Mr. Porter to say that he isn't setting aside money especially for AIDS research. For Mr. Porter it all came down to appearances, to a game of "now you see it, now you don't." To appease his rabid colleagues in the House, Mr. Porter had to be able to say that he had revoked designated spending for AIDS research. When they look at the budget table for the NIH, the line item for AIDS research given to the OAR will be nowhere to be seen. Yet in the fine print Mr. Porter, after two years of intense lobbying, was willing to give in and give the OAR control of NIH AIDS research funds. The year-long transfer authority for the OAR over 3% of NIH AIDS research dollars, which was part of the House spending bill, is a strange, magnanimous gift from him. This power goes above and beyond the new authorities granted in the 1993 NIH Revitalization Act. Who knows what came over Mr. Porter? Perhaps Mr. Porter's opposition to the OAR was less a measure of his animosity towards AIDS research and more a measure of his cowardice in the face of Rep. Livingston. To have supported the OAR all along would have taken the courage to stand up to a man who for two years now has gone on near apoplectic tirades against funding for AIDS programs during sessions of the full Appropriations Committee.

The threats against AIDS research are far from over. Mr. Porter and Mr. Livingston will still be at the helm of the House Appropriations Committee next year. Meanwhile, the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Mark Hatfield (R-OR), a moderate and supporter of the OAR, has retired. He is likely to be replaced by Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), a conservative with no history of active support of biomedical research or AIDS issues. In 1997, the Congress may also take up NIH Reauthorization, including the renewal of the 1993 provisions strengthening the OAR. The House Commerce Subcommittee on Health and the Environment, which will handle NIH Reauthorization, is in the hands of radical right-wingers, Thomas Bliley (R-VA) and Michael Bilirakis (R-FL). In 1993, as senior minority members of the Committee, Mr. Bliley and Mr. Bilirakis were vociferously opposed to strengthening the OAR. Furthermore, Henry Waxman (D-CA), the chief sponsor of the 1993 OAR provisions and ranking Democrat on the Health and the Environment Subcommittee, is thinking of moving to another Committee altogether. This would leave us with no champion for the OAR on the House authorizing committee.

In the Senate, Nancy Kassebaum (R-KS), has retired. Kassebaum is a moderate Republican and was chair of the Labor and Human Resources Committee which oversees NIH Reauthorization. Last year, under her guidance, the Senate passed the NIH Reauthorization Bill, which included a renewal of the 1993 provisions strengthening the OAR. The House did not take up the NIH Reauthorization last year. Kassebaum's replacement on the Labor and Human Resources Committee is likely to be moderate Jim Jeffords (R-VT). We may be able to count on Senator Jeffords' support during NIH Reauthorization; however, there is still the possibility that the notorious Dan Coats (R-IN) will take over the committee. That would be an unmitigated disaster for people with HIV. Finally, National AIDS Policy Coordinator, Patsy Fleming, and her Deputy, Jeff Levi, have announced their resignations. Both Ms. Fleming and Mr. Levi were ardent supporters of the OAR within the Clinton Administration. With their departures, we have lost two friends in a White House that is growing increasingly conservative. We have won one battle in the fight for AIDS research, but the war is only just beginning.