As one of his attempts at party "rebranding," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) unveiled something called the "Make Life Work" agenda last year, filled with modest policy measures intended to improve Republicans' standing. In an interesting twist, one of ideas actually seems poised to become law.
For whatever reason, Cantor has been eager to end federal funding for the major parties' presidential nominating conventions, but if he simply proposed scrapping the spending, his idea probably wouldn't go far. So the Virginia Republican tried to make things tough for Democrats: Cantor proposed taking the money that would go to conventions and redirecting it -- not to tax cuts or deficit reduction, but to children's medical research.
The congressman's office even found a 10-year-old Virginia girl who died last year of brain cancer and named the legislation after her. The bill became the "Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act" and became the center of Cantor's plan to make the House GOP appear more mainstream and in touch with real public concerns.
House Democrats grumbled, at a variety of volumes. If Cantor were serious about children's medical research, they asked, why did his House Republican caucus push deep cuts to scientific research at the National Institutes of Health? If the concern for research is genuine, why play emotionally manipulative games and target convention spending?
Those questions never actually received good answers, but Cantor's idea may become law anyway.
In a rare instance of Senate Democrats and House Republicans working together, Congress agreed Tuesday to shift funding formerly allocated to presidential conventions to programs focused on pediatric medical research. The bill, the Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act, was approved unanimously by the Senate, without a roll call vote, after being championed by Virginia Democrats Sen. Mark R. Warner and Sen. Timothy M. Kaine as well as by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), a veteran advocate for federal research.
Senate Democrats actually wanted to take this opportunity to restore some of the billions of dollars in cuts Republicans have imposed on the NIH, giving U.S. medical research a meaningful boost, but they were rebuffed. It was Cantor's bill or nothing.
Putting aside questions about sincerity, partisan schemes, and GOP rebranding, at least this means there will a little more spending for medical research, right? Well, maybe.
The major political parties will now have to rely more heavily on corporate donations, which in turn will move $126 million into the NIH's Common Fund. But the money will be spent over a decade, which works out to $12.6 million a year over 10 years.
To you and me, that's a lot of money. To a large federal agency working within the federal budgetary framework, it's really not.
OK, but $12.6 million a year for pediatric research is better than zero, right? Yes, but only if the NIH only gets the money -- and it may not.
House Democrats were quick to note last night that this new money, transferred away from the conventions, will now be held in a fund until congressional appropriators apply it to the agency, and no one knows when or if that will happen.
In the meantime, however, it's a safe bet Cantor's political operation will be crafting campaign ads, insisting that Republicans support children's medical research, attacking Democrats who opposed Cantor's scheme, and hoping voters don't look too closely at any of the relevant details.