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As the Election Nears … Changes in Committee Memberships?

August 15, 2014

Obamacare, immigration, Iraq, the economy, federal deficit spending … these are the issues that are being debated as part of the 2014 national election involving 438 House seats and 36 Senate seats (including special elections). To the best of my knowledge, there is no race in which FDA is an issue. Since campaigning has become so relentlessly negative, it is probably a good thing to not be the topic of a candidate debate.

However, that’s not the same as saying the election will not have an impact on FDA. Clearly, it will.

In the House, the Appropriations Committee might not have much overall change — depending on the outcome of a large number of races. However, three of the five top Republicans on the committee are retiring. Robert Aderholt, chair of the Agriculture/FDA appropriations subcommittee and a Republican from Alabama, will go from sixth in seniority on the committee to third. While we have no reason to think he wants to chair a different subcommittee, he will have that choice. The subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, Sam Farr of California, seems likely to return in that role.

The FDA’s authorizing committee, House Energy and Commerce is likely to field the same leadership team on the Republican side. However, the retirement of Ranking Democrat Henry Waxman of California, has set off a scramble to succeed him between current Health Subcommittee ranking member, Frank Pallone of New Jersey, and current Communications and Technology ranking member, Anna Eshoo. Both are very familiar with FDA issues.

In the Senate, the Appropriations Committee will undergo some inevitable changes — there are three retirements among senior members and three to five competitive re-election races. Notably, the chair of the Agriculture/FDA appropriations subcommittee, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, is locked in a tight race. If he is re-elected, we expect that he will probably choose to retain his chairmanship, rather than take another subcommittee. The ranking minority member of the subcommittee, Roy Blunt of Missouri, is not up for re-election in this cycle. We have no reason to think he wants a different subcommittee and it is not clear that any other ranking slots will fall vacant.

The FDA’s authorizing committee, Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), will also be in for changes. Chair Tom Harkin of Iowa is retiring and several of the senior committee members have other chairmanships that they are unlikely to give up to chair HELP. On the Republican side, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, is almost certain of re-election and is unlikely to switch committees. However, if the Republicans take control of the Senate, he may have other opportunities from which to choose.

This prompts an observation about one of the key election outcomes — whether the Senate has a Democratic or a Republican majority. The right to organize as the controlling party in the Senate comes with resources (primarily more committee staff) and the ability to set the agenda and control what comes to the floor. It is a prize to be fought over.

However, from the perspective of appropriations generally and FDA funding specifically, there is likely to be little change regardless of who wins. There are two reasons. First, there is almost nothing the majority leader can accomplish without the agreement of the minority leader, regardless of which party is in control. Second, the log-jam in appropriations and the severe downward pressure on discretionary programs is a result of Congress’ inability to modify entitlement programs or raise revenues. We can hope that changes next year — at least enough to restore the appropriations process — but that seems unlikely.

Note: This week’s Analysis and Commentary was written by Steven Grossman, the deputy executive director of the Alliance for a Stronger FDA

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