John Edward Porter has the distinction of being among a select group of members of Congress to have had a building on the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda named in his honor.
But Building 35, the John Edward Porter Neurosciences Research Center, has another distinction as well—it was the first to consolidate researchers from 10 of the NIH divisions on the same site.
Mr. Porter was honored with the naming in January 2001, shortly after he retired following 21 years of service with the U.S. House of Representatives as congressman from Illinois's 10th District in suburban Chicago.
During his tenure, he served as chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, and is credited with having prevented large budget cuts to NIH in 1995, and the subsequent doubling of its budget between 1997 and 2002.
However, in those days, Congressman Porter was what would be considered an anachronism today—a moderate Republican who worked with members of both parties on issues of concern to the public, not the vested ideological interests of partisan politics.
And he said in a telephone interview in mid-April that the timing of his decision to leave Congress in 2001 was fortuitous considering how divisive politics became after that.
“I thank God every day that I retired when I did. It [Congress] has become so partisan and brutal and mindless that it's appalling. So much money is coming into politics, and that's not what it should be. I miss the colleagues I was privileged to work with and the interactions with dedicated staff. It was a family. But, no I don't miss what it's become,” he said.
Mr. Porter said he announced he wouldn't be seeking re-election a year before his term was over, and that was partially due to the Republicans limiting members from serving more than six years as committee or subcommittee chairs.
Approached by Paul Rogers and Bob Hogan
Faced with stepping down from his appropriations post and not being interested in some of the other chairmanships he was offered, the then-65-year-old legislator preferred to continue his advocacy work on behalf of biomedical research in the private sector.
“When it was made known I wouldn't be returning to Congress, I was approached by two people, Paul Rogers— ‘Mr. Health’—and Bob Hogan, who told me I had to come to Hogan & Hartson,” the oldest major law firm headquartered in Washington, DC—renamed Hogan Lovells following a merger in 2010.
The late Paul G. Rogers (D-FL) was the former U.S. congressman who earned his nickname for leading the passage of dozens of measures promoting health care and the environment, including the National Cancer Act of 1971, as chair of the Subcommittee on Health and the Environment.
He founded the health law practice at Hogan & Hartson, and was chairman of Research!America, which is the position currently held by Mr. Porter, and was also immortalized on the NIH campus when Congress designated the main plaza in front of Building 1 as the Paul G. Rogers Plaza, where his widely quoted remark, “Without research, there is no hope,” can be found on a marker.
That quote was repeated during the American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting last month, where Mr. Porter received the AACR Award for Distinguished Service and Global Impact in Cancer and Biomedical Research for his significant and sustained contributions to cancer and biomedical research.
The award was one of more than 275 he has received for his Congressional service, including the Mary Wood Lasker Award for Public Service, the Albert Sabin Hero of Science Award from Americans for Medical Progress, and AACR's Distinguished Public Service Award in 1996.
He also told his audience that according to a poll commissioned by Research!America—the nation's largest not-for-profit public education and advocacy alliance committed to making research to improve health a higher national priority—that scientists are among the most respected individuals in America today.
The fiscal situation in the 1990s when biomedical research was facing major budget cuts is reminiscent of the current funding environment for science today.
When Mr. Porter was chairing the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, which had oversight for health programs and agencies including NIH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as for the education and labor programs and agencies of the federal budget, the House of Representatives was proposing 25% budget cuts at NIH during a five-year period.
It was 1995 and Mr. Porter brought together a group of Nobel Laureates in science as well as business leaders to meet with then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.
“At the end of the meeting, Newt realized the budget cuts were a mistake and the proposal was rejected,” Mr. Porter told OT.
The halt in funding cuts was subsequently followed by the historic five-year doubling of the NIH budget.
“Many times things were done the wrong way, but I couldn't stop it. Subcommittees would sit down with the OMB [the White House's Office of Management and Budget] team and their representatives and worked out the bill. I could understand why the Administration wanted to. It obviously didn't want to put out a lot of veto threats, but this was a bill that contained the Democrats' highest priorities and they wanted to make sure it was negotiated and came out acceptable to them.
“I remember [Senator] Bob Byrd coming in and saying ‘this was wrong’ to [Senator] Tom Harkin. ‘This should never happen this way. The executive branch should be out in the hall, and we the legislative branch should determine what goes into a bill,’ and Harkin said, ‘well, we're just going to do it this way anyway.’”
Mr. Porter also related a story from a Christmas party at the White House, when his committee had proposed a 15% increase for NIH and the President's budget had slated only 2%.
“Bill Clinton came up to me and said, ‘Hey, John, we really had hammed and egged it on NIH, didn't we?’ And I said, ‘oh yeah, Mr. President, we really did.’ Well, he would put in two percent knowing this was a very high priority for me and the others in Congress and we were going to put in the money anyway, which allowed him to free up lots of money he could put into other priorities while we took care of NIH in the actual appropriations.”
He explained that during the entire time that appropriations had been made for disease research, the appropriators in Congress had kept hands off, and if, for example, 15% was going to be proposed, then the congressmen would talk to NIH and ask how it would be spent.
“We let scientific judgment decide where the money would be spent and it would prevail over political judgments, and that was a principle that Congress has followed in appropriations since the very beginning, because the worst thing that could happen would be to pit one disease against others.”
Mr. Porter also mentioned another time when Newt Gingrich had slipped into a bill $200 million for juvenile diabetes without telling anyone; the money was cut back the following year, and the institutes have mostly been funded exactly the way NIH has suggested they be funded.
Mr. Porter lamented how Congress has changed over the years, and that it is difficult to be independent: “No one tried to muscle me into influencing things by party. But it's not an option today, and many decisions are made in closed conference rooms. It's come down to parties divided ideologically and things being split, and if you don't vote with your party on a particular issue you can lose your chairmanship,” he said.
Mr. Porter added that many people only look at where their emotions apply rather than looking broadly based on best evidence and that although many people appreciate science they don't understand how it works.
He also expressed concern over the ongoing tension between science and religion, and said it was difficult to accept that such a broad part of the public does not believe in evolution.
Started When He was 15
Mr. Porter's own interest in biomedical research began in 1950 when he was 15 years old and his father had turned 50.
That was the year Jonas Salk developed the first polio vaccine, which was especially meaningful to the future congressman since his father, a judge, had contracted the disease before turning two years old.
Mr. Porter, who attends Presbyterian services, also explained that although his father was Episcopalian and his mother was Baptist, one of his grandmothers was Catholic and had converted to Christian Science.
“She was involved with my education and I went to a Christian Science Sunday school, and when I saw how many of my fellow students wouldn't receive the vaccine because of religious beliefs I left the faith, although I have a strong appreciation for many of the positive things the religion has to offer.”
Growing up in Evanston, Illinois, he began college at MIT, but left after a year when he switched from engineering to pre-law with political science at Northwestern University, where he received his bachelor-of-arts degree in business administration.
He received his law degree from the University of Michigan Law School, and served in the U.S. Army Reserves for six years.
He entered politics during the time he was practicing law, first in the Illinois General Assembly and then following an unsuccessful run in 1978 against U.S. Representative Abner J. Mikva, he won a special election the next year when Mikva resigned mid-term. He was re-elected for another 10 terms before retiring.
Currently a partner with Hogan Lovells, Mr. Porter said he represents nonprofit organizations including his alma mater Northwestern.
Foundation for the NIH
In addition to chairing Research!America for the past nine years, he is acting chair of the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH). He served as vice chair until last year when the chair, Charles A. Sanders, MD, retired chairman and CEO of Glaxo Inc., suffered a stroke.
The FNIH is also where Mr. Porter met his current wife Amy Porter, who had served as the foundation's executive director for eight years before leaving in 2010 to head the National Osteoporosis Foundation.
He was founder and co-chair of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, has received nine honorary degrees, and is a member of the Institute of Medicine, and is on the boards of the PBS Foundation and Chicago Botanic Garden. He formerly served as chairman of PBS, and on the boards of the Brookings Institute, RAND Corp., American Heart Association, and John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Having an NIH research center building named after him was totally unexpected, he said.
“I was flabbergasted when the senators put in their part of the bill. It was Arlen Specter and Tom Harkin, and after I announced I was retiring, everyone was so nice.”
Construction was stopped following the 911 attacks, and didn't continue until a few years later when the $10 billion stimulus money became available.
Three of the building's seven pods are finished and completion of the entire project is scheduled for the summer of 2013.
‘Dramatically Improved Public Health’
“The AACR wishes to extend its profound thanks to Congressman Porter for making cancer and biomedical research his highest national priority while serving as chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that allocates funding to the NIH,” AACR 2010-2011 President Elizabeth H. Blackburn, PhD, said in a statement at the time that AACR announced it was honoring Mr. Porter with its Award for Distinguished Service and Global Impact in Cancer and Biomedical Research for his significant and sustained contributions to cancer and biomedical research.
“We are deeply grateful to Congressman Porter for his vision and leadership in the promotion of improved public health, and we are thrilled to honor him with this prestigious award.”
Added AACR CEO Margaret Foti, PhD: “Because of Congressman Porter's commitment to funding research, both senior and junior scientists have been able to continue their important work. Through his bold, heroic action on Capitol Hill, Congressman Porter has dramatically improved public health and saved an incalculable number of lives, not only in the United States, but also around the world.”