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“Filming Is Scheduled to Resume …” Shortly

November 19, 2010


Meeting at Department of Health & Human Services.  This past week the Alliance had a productive meeting with Health & Human Services Deputy Secretary Bill Corr regarding the FY 2012 budget cycle.  Also participating in the meeting were FDA Deputy Commissioner Josh Sharfstein, HHS Assistant Secretary for Resources Ellen Murray, and Counselor to the Secretary Dora Hughes.


It might seem that the process for passing appropriations bills should be similar from one year to the next. After all, it is a one-directional, regimented process. It always starts with “total available funds” and a baseline of current spending programs and concludes when the President signs an appropriations bill into law. And there are only 12 such bills that have to pass each year.

Yet, I have been through 30 or so appropriations cycles and each one seems to have its own unique story to tell. This year’s efforts would make a riveting “made for television” movie “based on a true story.”  We don’t know how it will end — there are a number of episodes that have not been written and filming is scheduled to resume when Congress returns on November 29. For those who tuned in late, here is a summary of the plot thus far:

  • The Democratic-controlled, but still badly divided, Congress failed to pass any of the 12 appropriations bills that fund the entire trillion-dollar federal government. Usually, Congress passes at least the Defense and Homeland Security bills. Past deadlocks have mostly been limited to the other 10 bills.
  • In addition to disputes over total funding and specific program allocations, Congress has been bedeviled by a continuing fight over appropriations earmarks. In both Houses, there are Democrats and Republicans on both sides of the question. Among conservatives, for example, it has divided Members who are otherwise very closely aligned. Some argue that earmarks are a wasteful, expensive process that epitomizes Congress’ lack of commitment to deficit reduction. Others argue that earmarks are one of the few ways that Congress can reduce the discretionary prerogatives of the Executive Branch. Today’s latest wrinkle is a dispute over whether infrastructure earmarks (to build bridges, highways, etc) would be covered by any earmark ban.
  • In late September, Congress passed a Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund government from October 1 (start of the new fiscal year) to December 3. The government will shut down at 12:01 a.m. on December 4 unless Congress passes another CR, an omnibus funding bill or individual appropriations bills. The current CR creates no priorities; virtually the entire government will spend the first 9 weeks of the FY 11 fiscal year operating under the same ceilings as the FY 10 spending levels. Putting decisions off until December 3 gave Members the benefit of postponing difficult decisions until after election day. A further short extension of the CR is possible to December 10 or 17, while Congress decides what to do next.  
  • The election results are not in dispute: Republicans picked up more than 60 seats in the House and will be the majority party starting in January. Democrats maintained control of the Senate for next year, but will go from a 59-41 advantage to 53-47 margin. Understandably, Democrats want to accomplish as much as possible in the post-election session, while Republicans are inclined to defer most things to the new Congress. However, these do not reflect hard lines — what “might be possible” changes daily, sometimes hourly.
  • The House and Senate appropriations committees have tried to put together an omnibus FY 11 spending bill (i.e., decide on the content of all 12 funding bills separately, then roll them into one legislative package). Supposedly, they had leadership encouragement to do this, but there doesn’t appear to be much enthusiasm outside of the appropriations committees.  However, most of the hard staff work on this seems to be done. If an even slimmer version of the bill were to emerge later, it might have a chance to pass.

Where does FDA stand in this drama? Bad scenarios for the agency include a Continuing Resolution set at the FY 10 levels or, worse, a CR that imposes across-the-board cuts. The best scenario is the omnibus bill, on the assumption that this will incorporate decisions about priorities. Any funding bill in which some programs do better than others (which could be a CR as well as an omnibus), gives FDA the best chance to received increased resources for FY 11.

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


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