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Spending Standoff Keeps NIH Chimps in Lockdown

Courtesy Chimp Haven
The NIH wants to move retired lab chimpanzees to a sanctuary. The proposal has gained praise and will save money, but is stalled because of the dysfunctional appropriations process.

About 60 chimpanzees housed at research facilities in Louisiana for the National Institutes of Health are due to move to a special sanctuary, a kind of retirement they’ve been granted after a grim lifetime as laboratory test subjects.

Waiting behind them are more than 300 chimpanzees now housed at sites in New Mexico, Texas and Louisiana. Their retirement is part of a widely admired plan the NIH announced in June that has now gotten tied up in the bitter political battles that have locked up spending bills on Capitol Hill. Without a change in a restriction set by a 13-year-old law on chimp sanctuaries, the NIH is unable to shift dollars, effectively putting the move on hold for at least the next few months.

This is one of the countless tweaks, instructions, shifts and adjustments in federal policy that likely would have been included in annual appropriations legislation — if Congress in fact still cleared regular spending bills. Appropriations measures, which need to be renewed each year, once routinely provided a quick path for updating a slew of older laws to meet current needs.

But the chronic budget battles of recent years have derailed the appropriations process, with fights over the annual caps for the federal government’s operating expenses often persisting months beyond the start of these new budget years.

The broad effect of derailed appropriations can be plain enough — agencies stumbling along with misplaced priorities and government departments trying to adjust spending across programs through the reprogramming authority that allows them to move funds between accounts.

But there is little appetite these days for adding many unrelated policy fixes to the stopgap continuing resolutions, which have been used to fund much of the government in the absence of completed annual appropriations.

The legislative fix needed to move the NIH chimpanzees almost made the high bar set for add-on provisions, or anomalies, for the fiscal 2014 continuing resolution (PL 113-46), but was eventually dropped from the measure, aides say.

The provision would have given the NIH the reprogramming authority needed to shift money within its roughly $10.5 million annual budget for chimpanzee care.

This legislative fix alone, with no new funds, would let the NIH carry out its plan to retire most of its chimpanzees now that advances in laboratory science have largely put testing on them in the past.

The retirement of the chimpanzees — many of which have spent their lives in captivity, from testing labs to sanctuaries — has been highly popular and it’s a good economic move for the NIH. Retiring the chimpanzees to a sanctuary will in time bring down the NIH’s expenses, because caring for them at laboratory-related sites is more expensive.

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