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New Head of NIH Appropriations Panel Known for Conservative Views and Support for Research Spending

7 January 2013 1:10 pm
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U.S. House of Representatives

Representative Jack Kingston (R-GA)

Representative Jack Kingston (R-GA), the incoming chair of the U.S. House of Representatives panel that controls the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has a long-standing reputation as a conservative budget hawk intent on reducing government spending. He's also known for being skeptical that humans are contributing to climate change and for rejecting Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. But although that record might make many scientists anxious, his reputation as an inside operator who understands the importance of funding research makes many science boosters breathe a little easier.

"We are looking forward to working with him," said Mary Woolley, president of the advocacy group Research!America in Alexandria, Virginia. "He has made clear his support for breast cancer funding and for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He's the kind of person who gets the job done."

Kingston, a 10-term congressman, is taking over the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies from Representative Denny Rehberg (R-MT), who left Congress after failing to win a Senate seat. Kingston previously chaired the appropriations subcommittee responsible for agriculture, a job in which he gained a reputation for being friendly to agricultural research.

In his new job, Kingston will oversee NIH's budget, which is currently slated to be $30.86 billion in fiscal year 2013. That figure represents a flat budget, currently being carried over from 2012 as part of a continuing resolution to keep the government funded until Congress can agree on a permanent deal. But Kingston may struggle to fend off future cuts: Science research advocates worry that steep budget reductions are looming as part of upcoming battles over short- and long-term federal spending plans.

Against this backdrop comes Kingston, a former businessman who was tagged as the most conservative member of the House of Representatives by National Journal. But he has a reputation for taking very good care of interests in or near his Georgia congressional district, which includes 25 largely rural counties in the southern part of the state. During the 111th Congress, for instance, he won federal spending "earmarks" for various research and medical projects, including $1.2 million for the government's National Peanut Research Lab for water conservation research, $1 million for the University of Georgia's College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences for farm energy efficiency investigations, and $1 million for the Southeast Georgia Health System for pediatric and adolescent healthcare for Medicaid and uninsured patients. (House rules have since made it much more difficult to win such earmarks.)

Kingston's spokesperson Chris Crawford says his boss is not taking the gavel with a preconceived agenda: "He really wants to identify priorities and let the subcommittee members work their will. There will be a lot of hearings with a lot of questions."

That's good news for budget advocates who are eager to tell the NIH research story. "We are confident that Representative Kingston sees the value of medical research, with Georgia receiving more than $441 million from the NIH in fiscal year 2012 that supported nearly 11,000 jobs in the state," said Christopher Hansen, president of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network in Washington, D.C. "Nationally, NIH-funded research supported more than 432,000 jobs last year."

Hansen adds that Kingston has supported other issues that are important to his group, including co-sponsoring legislation to both close screening loopholes and improve affordability of colon cancer screening for Medicare beneficiaries. Kingston has also championed research on obesity and is supportive of federal research on diabetes.

Kingston's family background may help explain his interest in research. His Brooklyn, New York-born father, Albert Kingston, was an educational psychologist with a Ph.D. from Cornell University who took his family to live in Ethiopia in 1955. There, he worked for a U.S. federal government program in support of the ministry of education in Addis Ababa. The elder Kingston went on to become a professor of educational psychology at the University of Georgia until his retirement.

Congressional observers familiar with Kingston say he is a politician who often holds more nuanced views than his high-profile public statements sometimes suggest. (He's appeared a number of times on comedian Stephen Colbert's television show and is a regular on cable news.) In particular, they say he is a sophisticated pol who knows how to work the levers of power behind the scenes, while still maintaining a conservative public image that has allowed him to avoid getting "primaried" by more conservative challengers in election years. As a result, he has enjoyed a safe seat and plenty of financial support from backers. During the 2012 election cycle, Kingston raised about $1.2 million, the majority from agribusiness and defense companies, according to Opensecrets.org.

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