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March 17, 2004

Domenici slams Specter and NIH ‘pigs’

Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) shocked his colleagues during an angry speech late last Thursday when he labeled the National Institutes of Health “pigs” and implied that a fellow Republican senator was doing the NIH’s bidding.

“I hate to say it, but the NIH is one of the best agencies in the world,” an angry Domenici said as he spoke in opposition to an amendment by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) to boost NIH funding by $1.5 billion. “But they’ve turned into pigs. You know, pigs! They can’t keep their oinks closed. They send a senator down there [to] argue as if they’re broke.”

Those who watched Domenici said that he twice placed his hand in front of his mouth in the shape of a pig’s snout and then wiggled his fingers. “He was definitely making a pig face,” said one Democratic aide.

Sen. Pete Domenici

Domenici spokesman Matt Letourneau said his boss “kind of made an oink motion with his hand. It was late. It’s certainly nothing personal to Senator Specter or to the doctors involved.”

The Senate later passed the amendment and the budget resolution.

The NIH has seen its funding more than double over the last four years, and the agency is slated to get a big increase at a time when almost all other domestic discretionary spending other than defense and homeland security is getting level funding or cuts.

Domenici noted in his speech that equally important research in the physical sciences gets funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which would get only $3.6 billion in the Senate’s fiscal year 2005 budget — the same as last year.

That’s far less than the $28.7 billion designated for the NIH before the $1.5 billion amendment was added.

Domenici, who has been an advocate for the NSF, which has major research facilities in New Mexico, also criticized the medical research industry’s aggressive push for more funding, noting that the industry has enlisted former House Minority Leader Rep. Bob Michel (R-Ill.) as a lobbyist.

“You know they wrote these little brochures out and they ought to be embarrassed,” he said. “They came to my office, and I told them, ‘You’re lucky you got old Bob Michel along with you, because as far as you doctors are concerned, I’d kick you out of here so fast you couldn’t find the door. But I’ll let Bob stay here for a minute and argue.’”

After being granted additional time by Budget Chairman Don Nickles (R-Okla.), Domenici applied the pig analogy to his fellow colleagues, many of whom look kindly on NIH, which funds and conducts research into diseases that have struck senators and their families personally.

“Our oink somehow is not full,” he said. Domenici, a former Budget Committee chairman, said in the current situation, he would pit popular programs against each other and make members choose between them.

Domenici’s daughter suffers from schizophrenia, and Domenici, who also is an appropriator, has pushed for legislation requiring mental health parity in health coverage.

Specter, who heads the Appropriations Labor-HHS Subcommittee, then took the floor to respond.

“The NIH did not send this senator anywhere,” he said. “My views arise from my own research. When I hear the senator from New Mexico disagreeing with [my] research, I think about how many times he’s come to me and I’ve helped him on funding for mental health.”

Before Domenici spoke, Specter had run through efforts by NIH to combat more than 40 diseases, including autism, stroke, obesity, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

Michel, now a senior counselor and adviser with Hogan & Hartson, expressed an appreciation for Domenici’s view in an interview. “It’s a rightful question for the members to say: ‘What are we getting for our money?’” he said.

Michel, who helped set up the Committee for Medical Research to fund lobbying on the issue, said he sometimes asked the same questions when he was in Congress, inquiring of agencies, “Jeez, you sure you can use all this money? [Are] we giving you too much? It’s a natural thing, for the Congress to ask.”

In 2002, the Committee for Medical Research raised $306,000, according to the PoliticalMoneyLine website.

Michel, whose wife recently died of a stroke, said general medical research was one of the best things Congress can fund. “For me, it’s been kind of a real labor of love,” he said.

“There’s no question [that] with our effort here at doubling [funding] … it gets highlighted,” he added. “Of course it gets to be a target.”

NIH funding has risen from $12.7 billion in 1997 to $27.9 billion in fiscal year 2004.

Marc Stern, a spokesman for the NIH, said no one represents the agency as a lobbyist, but people do represent advocacy groups and medical schools that lobby for greater NIH funding. He declined to respond to Domenici’s characterization of the agency as “pigs.”

The 72-year-old Domenici began his floor remarks by declaring that he normally doesn’t make such strong statements. “I normally get up to argue a case when I think I can win, and sometimes — not too often — I get up to argue a case on the floor of the Senate because I think the case deserves my argument.”

Domenici has been suffering severe arthritis and pain in his right hand caused by a nerve problem. A former minor-league baseball pitcher, Domenici recently injured his hand playing touch football with his grandchildren. Domenici’s spokesman would not comment on whether Domenici was taking any pain medication.

During conversations with reporters last week before his scalding Senate speech, he spoke frequently about his pain and at times appeared to be suffering.


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