WASHINGTON -- Former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) made an extraordinary pitch to his one-time colleagues this week as they head into tense government funding negotiations this summer. If they want to secure increases in defense spending, he said, they should dramatically increase funding for biomedical research -- and put it all on the nation's credit card.
"The president has consistently said, and the Democrats' position remains, that if there is going to be an increase in defense spending there must be a commensurate increase in domestic spending," Cantor said in an interview with The Huffington Post. "My position would be, let's go ahead and commit to long-term creation of value, let's go in and put all the incremental dollars on the domestic side into scientific and medical research."
Cantor has been a longtime champion of the National Institutes of Health, almost single-handedly passing a bill during his last year in office to devote millions to pediatric research. So his forceful testimonial in support of greater federal spending on science is not surprising in itself. But he also has always balanced his advocacy with insistence on austerity. His bill, the Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act, for example, was offset by ending the public funding of presidential conventions.
For that reason, his case for boosting the NIH's budget without offsetting the spending elsewhere is remarkable. And though the comments of Cantor, who unexpectedly lost his 2014 primary, can be attributed in part to his newfound freedom from the burdens of party leadership, they still have the power to influence the course of the forthcoming government funding debates.
In making the case for a defense-for-biomedical research deal, Cantor specifically urged his fiscally hawkish colleagues to think big-picture when it comes to stimulative science spending.
"Let's start to think long term," Cantor said. "The fiscal hawks, if you will, they are very focused on cutting spending now. If you were to just grow the economy by one-tenth of one percentage point, go from 2.3 to 2.4 percent, according to [the Congressional Budget Office] … you would reduce the deficit over a 10-year period by $300 billion. You can't cut enough to have as much effect on the deficit as you could to start to grow this economy.
"There is probably nothing more stimulative in terms of economic growth than innovation," he added. "That innovation comes from basic scientific research. That is the message that I would have: If we would start to take a longer-term look to create value long term, rather than always succumb to the siren of short-term gain."
As things stand now, a high-stakes government funding standoff is looming this summer and fall. The budgets introduced by the president and congressional Republicans diverge widely when it comes to matters of spending.
The Obama administration has called for increases in domestic discretionary spending roughly 7 percent above the sequestration caps set to take hold in October. The president's budget proposes to offset that spending with a combo of tax hikes and spending cuts elsewhere. The president, meanwhile, told The Huffington Post that he would not sign a government funding bill if it did not include some sequester relief for non-defense accounts.
Republicans aren't close to satisfying that demand. Their House and Senate budgets have called for broad, widespread cuts to non-defense programs, though they don't get into the specifics of which programs would get the axe, leaving that detail for appropriators. Where the GOP budgets call for more money is in defense. They do so by putting tens of billions of dollars into the Overseas Contingency Operations fund, which is not subject to sequestration.
The key to a future bipartisan deal, Cantor said, may be in that last provision. By plowing money into the OCO, Republicans have opened the door for deficit spending on the non-defense side of the coin, the former majority leader said. The NIH would be the logical place to put that money.
Cantor said that when it comes to funding biomedical research, "the hang-up has always been on my side of the aisle."
"Republicans have said, 'We are not going to spend more money without paying for it,'" he said. "Well, they have already taken the jump now with funding OCO without paying for it. So, I do believe that there is an opening that perhaps there could be some agreement."
Asked specifically if he believed Republicans should spend on the NIH without an offset, Cantor replied: "You haven't offset the defense spending."
Cantor's championing of more NIH funding already has some unexpected backing from current Republican lawmakers. At a recent event raising awareness for cancer research, several conservatives offered their vigorous support for increasing the NIH's budget from its current level of roughly $31 billion. One of those members, Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.), said he would be fine increasing the budget to $60 billion without offsetting the increase.
"Honestly, I'm not a big fan of deficit spending. I'm not a big fan of deficits," said Yoder. "Certainly, as a conservative Republican, I believe the fiscal health of our nation is one of the most critical issues long term. But I think I can go to my 16-month-old daughter and I can say, 'I borrowed money in your name to cure cancer' and she would thank me."
NIH Director Francis Collins told The Huffington Post he was heartened by Yoder's comments, even as he was admittedly nervous about the consequences of the House Republicans' budget. Still, both he and Cantor seem to think the tide of public opinion is shifting and could bring some funding relief this fall.
"We know disproportionately that medical research can produce cures which ultimately can reduce outlays on the healthcare side of the ledger, that in the end it pays for itself," said Cantor. "Now it does take a different way of looking at the budget, because you may not get that cure into effect, if you will, within the budget window. But long term -- this is part of the struggle, we have got to be looking long term, what creates value, what saves lives and what lowers costs -- and I don't think anyone can come up with something better to do those three things than to do medical research."