The Pandemic Shift: Newt Gingrich Joins House Republicans in Push to Reduce NIH Funding
Introduction: A Change in Stance on Health Research Funding
In a striking reversal, Newt Gingrich, the influential GOP veteran, and former Speaker, has joined contemporary House Republicans in their critique of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
He hails from an era when GOP lawmakers ardently pushed for increased NIH funding, convinced it was the key to medical innovation, life-saving treatments, and robust economic growth.
The Roots of the Change
Gingrich’s conversion stems from a growing perception that the NIH, once a bastion of medical research and innovation, has turned unaccountable amidst the ongoing pandemic. Expressing his disappointment in an interview with POLITICO, Gingrich praised the recent push by House appropriators to cut the NIH budget by a considerable $3.8 billion.
“There’s a definite need for an overhaul. It’s become an unmanageable system that’s spiraled out of control. Applying financial pressure could be a step towards rectifying the situation,” Gingrich observed, reflecting a change of heart shared by a significant segment of the Republican party.
A Major Shift in Attitude
This shift represents a substantial departure from Gingrich’s past stance. As Speaker in the late ’90s, Gingrich was instrumental in Congress’s decision to double the NIH’s budget, leading to significant increases in funding for over five years. He reaffirmed this belief as recently as 2015, calling for a second doubling of the budget.
However, the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic and the GOP’s growing discontent with government efforts to control its spread, including the role of Anthony Fauci, have prompted a drastic change. The 8% budget cut proposed by House Republicans last week now includes Gingrich among its advocates.
Tensions Rising Amidst Pandemic
The pandemic significantly strained Gingrich’s fondness for the NIH. “The agency has become so inundated with funding, it’s subcontracting research to foreign entities with significant military capabilities,” he said, referring to coronavirus research grants given to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China.
This issue of accountability, in Gingrich’s view, rests largely with Fauci, who held the position of Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases during the pandemic, the same role he served during Gingrich’s speakership.
The proposed budget cut, however, would need to pass the Democratic-controlled Senate and gain President Joe Biden’s approval before implementation.
A Contrary Perspective: Scientists Advocate for NIH
Contrary to Gingrich’s stance, many scientists see the proposed budget cut as detrimental to the mission of the NIH. According to United For Medical Research, a coalition of research institutions, health and patient advocates, and companies, the cut could hinder the progress made in biomedical research over the last few years.
The Road Ahead: Potential Government Shutdown and NIH Future
The proposal is an initial move in a long, complicated process that may culminate in a government shutdown, according to Erik Fatemi, a principal at lobbying firm Cornerstone Government Affairs.
Despite the proposed cut, Fatemi is optimistic that Congress will ultimately allocate at least as much funding to the NIH as it did the previous year.
Senate Appropriations Committee leaders have agreed to add $2 billion in emergency funding to the healthcare bill, including NIH.
However, the political landscape remains uncertain, as House Republicans express their discontent with the NIH and Fauci. Still, some believe this is a temporary wave of post-pandemic anger rather than a permanent shift in direction.
Amid the changing political climate, the NIH will continue to play a crucial role in health care transformations, including personalized medicine, immunotherapy, and Alzheimer’s treatments.
“We should be at the forefront of these advancements, which is only possible with a thriving NIH,” said former Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, one of the NIH’s biggest Republican champions.
Pandemic Effects and the Question of NIH’s Accountability
The COVID-19 pandemic cast a long shadow over Gingrich’s faith in the NIH. He expressed concern that the agency was “so awash in money that they were giving it to the Chinese to do research, which had an enormous military capability.” These comments referred to coronavirus research grant subcontracts awarded to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
For this perceived lapse in oversight, Gingrich lays the blame squarely at the feet of Anthony Fauci, a figure who has served as the director of the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases throughout Gingrich’s speakership and the ongoing pandemic.
The Battle Ahead: The NIH Budget Cut Faces Resistance
In spite of Gingrich’s and the House Republicans support, the proposed budget cut has a formidable obstacle course ahead. To come into effect, it needs to navigate through a Senate controlled by the Democratic party and secure President Joe Biden’s endorsement.
Even with Gingrich’s endorsement, the planned reduction does not account for inflation—an issue Gingrich was well aware of during his 2015 campaign for a substantial budget increase.
Scientific Community’s Response: A Rejection of Gingrich’s Views
As expected, the scientific community largely disagrees with Gingrich’s changed perspective. Many consider the proposed budget reduction as a blow to the National Institutes of Health’s mission.
In a statement, United For Medical Research—a coalition of research institutions, patient advocates, and companies promoting increased NIH funding—expressed its opposition to the cut.
It argued that “the NIH and the entire biomedical research community has for the last several years been catching up from a decade of flat funding.”
A Complex Process: Government Shutdown and the NIH’s Future
The House Appropriations Committee’s proposal to cut NIH funding marks the beginning of a long and intricate process, warns Erik Fatemi, a principal at the Cornerstone Government Affairs lobbying firm.
The proposed cuts are a significant blow to the agency and the broader biomedical research enterprise, potentially jeopardizing America’s international competitiveness and economic development. He suggests that the process could even lead to a government shutdown.
Despite this, Fatemi remains optimistic. He believes that Congress will ultimately assign at least as much funding to the NIH as it did this year.
The NIH: Still a Bipartisan Priority
Even as the debate rages, there’s consensus that the NIH remains a bipartisan priority. Ellie Dehoney, senior vice president at Research! America, a research advocacy organization, views the House version of the budget cut as a message of anger from a segment of the right towards the NIH and Fauci, rather than an indication of permanent distaste.
Senate Appropriations Committee leaders, both Democratic and Republican, have agreed to add $2 billion in emergency funding to their version of the health care funding bill that includes NIH.
This suggests a potential strategy to maintain or even slightly increase funding for the NIH, despite the ongoing controversy.