Policy Corner: Committee Mulls Changes to Federal Grant Programs

As federal grants are centrally important to many ACSM researchers, we are happy to share a summary of proposed legislation affecting federal grant programs. This is provided by Jennifer Zeitzer, director of legislative relations for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), of which ACSM is a member society.

On Nov. 16, Representative James Lankford (R-OK) introduced H.R. 3433, the Grant Reform and New Transparency (GRANT) Act of 2011. The bill was referred to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. According to Representative Lankford, the legislation is intended to create greater transparency in how federal agencies award and distribute grants. HR 3433 is co-sponsored by Representatives Darrell Issa (R-CA), Mike Kelly (R-PA), Patrick Meehan (R-PA), and Pedro Pierluisi (D-Puerto Rico). There is no Senate companion legislation at this time.

HR 3433 requires:
  • All federal agencies to use merit-based selection procedures in awarding grants (with some exceptions).
  • That the selection procedures for each federal grant program be made public by the agencies in advance and include a description of how the grant proposals will be evaluated, ranked, and selected.
  • Grant applicants to be evaluated to assess whether they have an adequate financial management system, internal controls, and compliance and reporting systems. The bill provides for a simplified and less burdensome pre-award evaluation procedure for applicants who have received a significant number of federal grants.
  • The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to create a single, comprehensive website for federal grant opportunities that includes all federal grant announcements, the purpose of each grant, the grant period, the amount of available funds, eligibility requirements, the agency contact, a description of grant evaluation factors and criteria, disclosures of process and standards for safeguarding against conflicts of interest, and the deadline for submission of grant applications/proposals.
  • That once a grant recipient is notified of their award, OMB must post on the website (within 15 days) a copy of the final grant agreement, a copy of any proposal, application, or plan submitted for the awarded grant, documentation explaining the basis for the selection of the grant, the number of proposals received, and the numerical ranking of the grant proposal that was awarded (if rankings were assigned). OMB would also be required to post a written justification for grants that were awarded that were not consistent with the rankings assigned by grant reviewers, the names, titles, and employers of all individuals who served as peer reviewers for each grant program during the six month period before the grant was awarded, and the names, titles, and employers of all other individuals who served as reviewers for grants that were awarded. If an agency awarding a specific grant determines that posting the above information on the OMB website would adversely affect the grantee, the agency may post only an abstract or executive summary of the grant proposal. However, the agency is required to post the complete proposal or grant application by a date to be determined by the agency in consultation with the grantee (but no later than three years after the date the grant was awarded).
  • The head of each federal agency to post to the OMB website a forecast of the grants each agency expects to award in the following calendar year (by November 30th of each year).
  • Federal agencies to provide all grant applicants with a timely debriefing explaining the agency’s grant award decision, including an explanation for why a grant was not awarded (for all grants over $100,000).
HR 3433 was marked-up by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and approved by a voice vote on Nov. 17. Chairman Issa and Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-MD) expressed support for the goals of the legislation, although Cummings noted that universities had concerns about the provisions that would require public posting of grant applications. Cummings said it is critical that the bill protect proprietary information and that Congress needs to get the details right so that the new transparency policies can be implemented without harming grantees. Representative Lankford also gave a brief opening statement explaining various provisions of the bill. He pledged to continue to work with the university community to address their concerns and to ensure that the bill “doesn’t do anything to dampen the innovative research coming out of the country’s excellent universities.”

During the mark-up, Representative Gerald Connolly (D-VA) offered an amendment that would require only grant abstracts, rather than the full grant application, to be posted on the OMB website. Connolly explained that he was concerned that posting the entire grant application would unintentionally reveal proprietary information. The Connolly amendment was defeated by a voice vote. Chairman Issa opposed the Connolly amendment because he felt it would “gut the intent of the bill.” However he said he was willing to entertain additional changes in a manager’s amendment before the bill goes to the full House for a vote. Representative Lankford highlighted the section of the bill that would allow agencies to exempt certain grant applications from the requirement to post complete grant applications if they contain proprietary information. A second amendment by Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD) intended to strike the section of the bill requiring the disclosure of the name, title, and employer of individuals who had served as peer reviewers during the six months preceding the announcement of an award was adopted by voice vote. However the Cummings amendment was modified by a second-degree amendment by Representative Lankford that retained the disclosure requirement but added language to allow federal agencies to use a “unique identifier” to disclose peer reviewers rather than their names. The term “unique identifier” was not defined in the Lankford amendment, nor does the amendment provide any instructions to federal agencies about how to implement this section if the bill becomes law.

The American Association of Universities (AAU), the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities (APLU), and the Council on Government Relations (COGR) have been in contact with the Republican and Democratic staff of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee to share the university community’s concerns about the legislation. AAU continues to have reservations about the need for the legislation and that some provisions are redundant of current law or regulations. The version of HR 3433 that was marked-up last week was modified to meet some of AAU’s, APLU’s, and COGR’s concerns, and the discussions between the university groups and committee staff are continuing. AAU is neither opposing nor supporting the bill at this time but is seeking the views of its member universities and will continue to share input with the committee staff. Institutions in Oklahoma have also been in direct contact with Representative Lankford’s staff to discuss additional modifications to the bill language. In addition, the National Institutes of Health Office of Legislative Policy and Analysis shares many of the concerns expressed by AAU and spoke with Oversight and Government Reform Committee staff prior to the mark-up.

FASEB will continue to monitor this legislation and keep you abreast of new developments. In the meantime, here are some resources that will provide additional information about HR 3433: