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Can We Get Back to “the Regular Order” of Business?

November 8, 2013

It’s hard to imagine a worse month than October, with the Congressional stalemate and the government shutdown.  The conclusion was not very satisfactory: through January 15, 2014, government agencies will only be able to spend the reduced amount they had last year after the rescission and after the sequester.  Even that reduced spending level is not assured. And there is no guarantee that there won’t be yet another shutdown.

In this totally unpredictable environment, FDA is definitely “at risk.”  We described some of the possible bad outcomes in last week’s column. This week, we look at  outcomes that would, most likely, be better for FDA.

The most notable aspect of FDA’s situation is that it does significantly better under either the House or the Senate appropriations bills than it does under the Continuing Resolution. Why? Because the CR is built around a formula designed to keep all discretionary spending at a relatively low benchmark. It makes no distinctions among federal agencies. Those with vital missions, growing responsibilities, or critical roles in the U.S. economy are treated no differently than any other program.

In contrast, the House and Senate appropriations committees did set priorities within the FY 14 bills they considered earlier in the year. In that process,  FDA’s vital mission, growing responsibilities, and critical role in the U.S. economy was recognized for its importance and the agency given significantly more money to spend than it had in FY 13. FDA would receive a larger increase under the Senate bill than the House bill, but largely because the House appropriations committees were given less money to spend under the House budget resolution.

From all of this, I conclude that the best thing that could happen for FDA would be a return to what is called “the regular order,” under which the appropriations committees decide how much money each agency and budget line receives. This still could happen for FY 14 if the House and Senate negotiators were to agree on the amount of discretionary spending and the division between defense and non-defense. Then, there might not need to be either a sequester or a rescission … just the appropriations committees to decide how to best spend the totals they are given.

Is this outcome likely? It’s impossible to say. The budget situation is so unpredictable that no one knows what will happen. Not House Speaker Boehner. Not Senate Majority leader Reid. And not me, either. Such uncertainty makes it difficult to run an agency efficiently, as Commissioner Hamburg has noted, but this reflects our current reality. Getting ourselves back in the hands of the appropriations committees would almost certainly be an improvement.

Note: This analysis and commentary is written by Steven Grossman, the Deputy Executive Director of the Alliance for a Stronger FDA.

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