Podcast: Congress at work
Posted on October 17, 2019Can Congress accomplish important work despite the impeachment inquiry? We're joined on the podcast by the Associate Vice-Chancellor for Federal Relations for the University of Kansas, Jack Cline.
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John Feehery: We are joined by a very special guest. Jack Cline is a Marine, a Harvard graduate, former President of The Science Coalition. Currently the Associate Vice Chancellor for Federal Relations at the University Of Kansas. He also worked for our good friend John Boehner. Welcome to the Feehery Theory. Jack Cline, there are many things Congress ought to do, but one of the things that Congress must do is increase funding for biomedical research. Don't you agree?
Jack Cline: Absolutely. 100%. Right now we're working with our partners like United For Medical Research, Science Coalition, ACT for NIH, and the larger higher ed research community are locking arms to support an FY20 NIH request at 42.1 billion. Right now we're at 39, a little over 39 for FY19. And so we're working closely, lobbying House and Senate appropriators for this number. And we're just praying that we don't go into a CR so that all the work that appropriators have done the last six, eight months will enable these bills to move forward.
John Feehery: John Easton, you've been working on this for a long time. Biomedical research has probably got to be the most popular thing that Congress does. Think about this, you think about Alzheimer's, you think about Parkinson's, you think about all the kinds of cancer research. This is really important stuff and we've had some success.
John Easton: We've had a lot of success of late and I think a lot of people will remember that we went through a decade of flat funding, and it really hamstrung that that pipeline of innovation. And I think that one of the reasons why it has such bipartisan support, and it's really become a national priority. And it's one of those areas that does get increases. Because as Jack was mentioning, because it has become that priority on both sides of the aisle. If you think about it in a lot of people don't realize this, but NIH funding, the vast, vast majority of that does not happen inside NIH. It happens out in the 50 States.
John Feehery: Right.
John Easton: There are all these laboratories, and really they're research centers. And a lot of times it's on university campuses, which is creating these innovation hubs around these research centers. Which is creating not only this great boost in public health, to your point about all these diseases, trying to come up with treatments and cures, but it also creates a ton of great jobs around these centers.
John Feehery: So talking about jobs, Semper Fi and Rock Chalk, Jayhawk [crosstalk 00:00:02:35], University of Kansas. Kansas does a lot of this research, right?
Jack Cline: Absolutely. So NIH research is our number one federal extramural research agency. It's the number one priority for the chancellor. This is something where I think about every day when I talk to the members of the Kansas congressional delegation and their staff. We are fortunate that we have a staff that understands our priority. And understanding by voting the right way for these appropriation bills. Not just for NIH across the board. I'm advocating for research on other agencies, but NIH is something that, whether it's Senator Roberts, or Moran, or our four House members, they understand that this is number one for us.
John Feehery: And John Easton, when you're talking to members of Congress, everyone's got a personal story. I know from my perspective, my dad had Parkinson's and it was devastating. And if you get the research in there, we could solve this problem.
John Easton: Yeah. That's right. And I think that by funding these great research organizations, centers, universities, you're doing that. You're not only doing that, but you're keeping America as the leader in global biomedical research. I think that's incredibly important too. Because everybody wants to come here to do their research, to push the innovation envelope. And if you think about, and Jack, you can remind me the number of this. But recently it was discovered that all of the drugs, I don't know how many recent drugs were approved by FDA in the last two years, I think it was, were NIH-funded research. And that's just a great story in of itself. The kind of innovative drugs that are prescription drugs that are coming out in the market to help these treatments is amazing.
John Feehery: And Jack Cline. This is a bipartisan thing. You've been at The White House talking about this stuff.
Jack Cline: Absolutely. And so the thing about NIH research, is it's beloved, obviously in the House and Senate side, Republicans and Democrats. Which is great. But we've seen from past years in terms of the presidential budget requests, that NIH has been proposed for cuts. But the good news that we've seen, of course, is the President's statement in the State of the Union earlier this year.
Donald Trump: Tonight, I am also asking you to join me in another fight that all Americans can get behind. The fight against childhood cancer. Many childhood cancers have not seen new therapies in decades. My budget will ask Congress for $500 million over the next 10 years, to fund this critical life-saving research.
Jack Cline: Obviously we want a larger number, right? But it's a great start. And more importantly, it's a great message to the community that The White House does get it. This president gets it. And I think our job is to not only lobby for these dollars on The Hill, but to ensure that the administration understands that at the end of the day, he's going to sign these bills. He has signed these bills, he should get some credit for doing that.
Jack Cline: And so I'm trying to bring in as many partners and allies as possible. And if the president wants to say that in the State of Union, I'm going to underscore it and lobby hard. So in my role at the University of Kansas, I worked with the administration and the staff, both in the executive branch, and our National Cancer Institute staff, to really help drive the importance of this initiative. And to get it sold with House and Senate appropriators.
John Feehery: So there's so much partisan brawling going on, John Easton, especially in House and the Senate. You think about that. But the people don't really realize that there's a lot of work that Congress still has to do. And can Congress work and bicker at the same time?
John Easton: That is the billion-dollar question. When you have something as serious and all-consuming as impeachment, everything has to now be seen through that lens. I think that there are probably three things in my mind that I think are possible, between now and the end of the year, to get done by Congress. And that is obviously the spending bills, which we were just talking about.
John Easton: We were talking about the Labor-HHS-Education bill that has NIH, but there are of course 11 other bills that need to be passed and signed into law. These are probably going to be combined into what they call these sort of mini packages. And it's critical that they get done. And some of them may be kicked to next year, and get extended. And so, it's becoming more of a mess. And because it's more of a mess, it's imperative. And I know that the appropriations chairman are really, really feel like it's an immediate priority.
John Easton: Then you have the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement that is possible. But again, that could fall the victim of all this dysfunction and... If you thought it was dysfunctional and partisan before impeachment, it's going to get 50 times worse. And then I would say that there's another item that has been talked about a lot. And that's a drug pricing bill, that is intended to lower the price of drugs, and reform the process. That could get done in an end of the year health package. But we will see.
John Easton: What's interesting is that's about to be passed by the House. It's going through the first committee this week, probably the second next week, second and third next week. So it's on its way, and it's going to pass the House. And then it's going to be in the Senate, to see what they're going to do with it. But it's possible. But outside of that, even that is extremely ambitious, those three things. But those I would say are the three major things.
Jack Cline: I'll add to that. One other thing that I'm hoping that Congress takes up is the extenders. So we have both health and tax extenders that I think will be addressed, or at least I'm praying the rosary that they will. Specifically, there's a program, not to get into the weeds, called PCORI, which is a Patient-Centered Outcome Research Institute. It's a program that we care about at the University of Kansas. But more importantly, it's a program that helps patients, not just in Kansas, but across the country. And so it's a program we're trying to get included with the extenders package, and a variety of priorities that we very much hope will be taken up.
John Feehery: Yeah. So, Jack Cline, you go back home to Kansas and it's a red state. I'm assuming that the University of Kansas is a little bit bluer in its hue. You probably have partisans on both sides, kind of yapping at you all the time. You're kind of the guy who wants to get things done. When you go home to this kind of complicated... You try to explain what's going on here, how do you explain it?
Jack Cline: One slight amendment to that. We're perceived nationally as a red state.
John Feehery: Although that might be changing.
Jack Cline: But that is changing. I think we're skewing more towards purple. We have a new representative, Sharice Davids that represents the University of Kansas Medical Center. And of course, we have a current governor, democratic governor. She's doing a great job. She's now in her 10th month. Governor Laura Kelly. And so, I'd say that that the days of us being a solid red state are changing a little bit.
John Feehery: Thanks to Sam Brownback.
Jack Cline: And no comment there. Okay, so, Governor Brownback is in his new role. But to answer your question, I tell folks that, believe it or not, work is getting done in DC, behind the scenes when the Klieg lights go out. Committee staff members are able to move some priorities forward. And don't believe everything you read, and the news has a role to try to capture eyeballs and attention on things that are easy to distract viewers with. But I think we are able to get things done. And I don't think it's as bad as people make it out to be.
John Feehery: Well, I hope you're right. John Easton, I look at that iconic picture. It's going to become an iconic picture, of Nancy Pelosi standing up in a room full of men, standing against President Trump, doing a big walkout.
John Easton: It's now the picture on her Twitter feed.
John Feehery: Yeah, I'm sure it is. She loves it. Trump loves to make her the fond of all evil, but I'm not sure if that works. We'll see if it does. And he's going to be running against somebody else when he runs for president. But the president and the Speaker have a very acrimonious relationship. Do they have a vested interest in finding ways to do what Jack says and get some stuff done, or is it in their vested interest to retreat to their partisan corners and try to get their bases excited?
John Easton: It's of course both. It's in the nation's interest for them to find common ground, and to get some things done. And come to agreements on things like the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement on perhaps a prescription drug price reform program. But what is in their political interests. And of course, this goes back to the dawn of American time where a lot of times that's what wins the day, is serving your political interest.
John Easton: And I think at this moment I think Donald Trump is like a caged animal, and that he feels completely under siege by Nancy Pelosi and her army, over there in the House of Representatives. And so it's kind of tough to see them come to a place of common ground and agreement on some of these legislative items. But then again, they know it's good for them both. So at what point does that carry the day? I think that there are many in Congress, both in the Senate Democratic Caucus and the House Democratic Caucus who tell their respective leaders, "Are you crazy? You're going to give that lunatic a win? No way. No how. Ever."
John Easton: So they're hearing that a lot, but at the end of the day, I think sometimes the greater wisdom prevails, and they actually will agree on something. I hope so.
John Feehery: My humble opinion, if the Speaker Pelosi wants to keep her majority, she needs to give some solid wins to her 50 or so members who won in Trump-winning districts. And I think that that is ultimately what she'll do. My experience on that is what happened in the second term as Bill Clinton was running for president reelection, and the House Republicans gave a lot of victories, including welfare reform to Clinton.
John Feehery: And then after impeachment, Denny Hastert and Trent Lott worked with President Clinton to get a lot of stuff done to try to bring the country. It might be a combination of those two things, but I'm not sure. Jack Klein, it's rare we get someone here who is such an expert when it comes to higher education.
Jack Cline: I'm not sure if I would call myself an expert.
John Feehery: Compared to us, you're very much in an expert. And you know, Easton, at some point in time, his daughters are getting close to applying for colleges.
Jack Cline: ... come to the University of Kansas.
John Easton: Well, we'll put that on the list, for sure [crosstalk 00:13:51] especially after today.
John Feehery: One of my really good friends, Ken Goff, went to the University of Kansas Law School, and his daughter went to the University of Kansas. So Kansas is one of the great academic institutions.
Jack Cline: That's right.
John Feehery: It's known as the Harvard of the Midwest.
Jack Cline: That's right.
John Feehery: Okay.
Jack Cline: That's right.
John Feehery: Tell us about the state of higher education. What's it looking like in the next five to 10 years?
Jack Cline: The state of higher ed is strong. We have two immediate priorities that are not new to us, but we think about every day. And when I say they're not new, these are two issues that are 10, 20, 30 years in the making, that we think about every day. Which is science and security, we're dealing with an issue of espionage on campus. And I'm not specifically talking about the University of Kansas, although that has touched us. But across the nation, this is a real issue.
Jack Cline: Yesterday the Department of State made an announcement that all Chinese diplomats going forward, will have to contact the Department of State to notify them before they go onto a U.S. university campus. So that's new.
John Feehery: Oh, wow.
Jack Cline: And so that's an issue that the University of Kansas has been dealing with for 10, 20 years. And we're working with federal law enforcement intelligence community officials, to address an issue where intellectual property, hardware, and federal research dollars that have gone into this incredible research. So we protect it. These are really national assets.
John Feehery: Right, yeah.
Jack Cline: And so this is a top priority for presidents and chancellors across the country. The other kind of secondary priority are, we're dealing with sustained research funding. Not just for the NIH that we, of course, care about, but across the board. National Science Foundation, DOD, Department of Energy, NASA. Right now we're dealing with ups and downs. And a researcher on campus would much rather have sustained funding, long-term funding that he or she knows that there's an ability to plan.
John Feehery: Right.
Jack Cline: And right now we have these peaks and these valleys where it's hard to do that. And certainly, with continuing resolutions and government shutdowns, it's hard for researchers. And I'm not just talking about at the University of Kansas, but across the country. And they want certainty. And so research funding, it's our responsibility to gently educate members of Congress and their staff, that we would much rather see sustained growth over time. Not just at our science agencies, but across the board to include the National Endowment for the Humanities. The full spectrum, so that our scholars on campus can plan, and really drive the discoveries that we rely on them for.
John Feehery: That's really interesting. It's not only just for research, but it's also DOD.
Jack Cline: Yes.
John Feehery: If you think about all these things, the congressional budget process is fundamentally broken. It has been broken for a while. I think they need to go to a two-year budget. I think they need to go to a two-year appropriations process. I think they need to give more room for oversight and more room to give people that give the grants to, the ability to spend two years with the money. Because I think we get a lot more efficiencies out of the system. But anyway... [crosstalk 00:17:15].
Jack Cline: Absolutely.
John Feehery: So, John Easton, this is my favorite part of the segment. What are you buying or selling today?
John Easton: I'm going to have to tip my hat a little bit to our producer, Adam Belmar, who is with us. But just off-camera, on this. Because we were talking about this earlier. And tomorrow is, I'm buying the first all-female spacewalk. And these two wonderful astronauts are going to replace a battery unit out on the International Space Station. And kudos to them. Again, I'm sure we can all appreciate just how difficult it is to actually become an astronaut. Physically, mentally. The rigor must be unbelievable.
John Easton: And I know they're more than deserving of this opportunity. And it's about time. And I'll say, just in parallel with that, we all remember Christina McAuliffe who was the first female, well first civilian female to go into space. The teacher from New Hampshire, who was killed in the Challenger explosion. A coin bill was just passed by the House and Senate, and signed into law, last week by President Trump honoring Christina McAuliffe. And so think this is very timely and appropriate that those two sort of are happening about the same time. So good luck on your walk tomorrow.
John Feehery: Yeah, right. Wow, that's kind of scary. Jack Cline, what are you buying or selling today?
Jack Cline: John, I'm buying having the environment ready for the country to talk about the national debt. And this is a tricky topic for members of Congress and leaders to talk about. Right now we're over at 22 trillion, and it will take some leadership and courage to talk about mandatory spending programs. And so I'm buying the environment where leaders in the next Congress will be able to take this up. This is an important issue, not just to higher ed research, but really to the country. And unfortunately we've seen this conversation be tabled, and I think I'm buying that it's going to come back.
John Feehery: I will say that if you give the necessary investment in health research, it will actually have an impact on the debt. Because people will live longer and pay taxes longer, and we spend less on other things. I think that's a good one though.
John Feehery: So I'm going to buy the memory of Elijah Cummings who just passed. You know what, I didn't agree with Elijah Cummings, but I appreciated the passion with which he did his job. He was a principled leader, and it's just sad that someone like him dies. It happens. But he was a good member of Congress, represented his district well, and I'm sorry for his passing. With that, I want to thank Jack Cline for joining the Feehery Theory Podcast, brought to you by EFB Advocacy. EFB means...
Jack Cline: Excellent for business.
Adam Belmar: Yeah Baby.