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Characterizing the Epitome of Essential

May 6, 2011

Congress has been back in DC for a week and there is not much to report on the appropriations process. As mentioned in this week’s Advocacy at a Glance, the “hard deadline” for increasing the debt ceiling has been extended for another 3 weeks, into early August. There are some rumblings that the House may act soon on a debt ceiling bill, presumably with substantial budget cuts included or with procedural restrictions on spending. One possibility would be provisions that would force automatic cuts if deficit reduction targets aren’t met by a specific date (probably after the 2012 election). No matter what is decided, we assume that large spending cuts will be required in FY 2012.

In the latest round of budget cuts (FY 11), FDA did well. It received a $107 million increase. When national defense and homeland security are put aside, FDA was one of only a handful of federal agencies that received more money. Faced with another year (FY12) that is likely to be even worse, what is an appropriate measure for success? For FY 11, we achieved relative success … an increase in FDA funding was deemed a higher priority that virtually all non-defense requests. We also achieved absolute succes … because the agency received new monies, not merely that it did better than others. Relative success reflects the extraordinarily difficult budget environment in which we are working. Absolute success reflects the real demands of an agency with a mounting workload.

If — as we expect — the agriculture appropriation subcommittees are given less money to spend in FY 12, then the challenge will be much greater. Relative success in FY 12 might be flat funding for the FDA, while other programs take large cuts. This may be the best we can do … but we will not reach that situation without presenting Congress with all the reasons why FDA needs more money. In the end, the only thing that matters is whether FDA has enough resources to do its job

At the moment, our best argument might be dubbed “FDA is an exception because it is essential.” The purpose and priority of current government functions are under intense scrutiny. Every Member of Congress is going to see programs — ones they or their districts/states care deeply about — being severely trimmed or eliminated. Understandably, they want to see shared sacrifice from the entire spectrum of government programs. Only a few programs will be spared … and the only way to be in that elite is for Congress to see a program as essential — like national defense, air traffic controllers, and the agriculture department’s “man in the plant” meat inspectors. The list will be short … and surviving FY 11 is no gauge of whether a program or agency will fare well in FY 12.

Ultimately, nothing can alter the “iron triangle” of deficit reduction: appropriations, entitlements, revenue. An increasing proportion of Congress has begun to understand that appropriations alone (“fixing our spending problem”) cannot meet the big picture fiscal goal … significant changes in entitlements and revenue will be required. When Congress (and the American people) are fully ready for that debate — the goal will be trillions, not billions. That might ease the pressure on essential agencies like FDA.

However, the dialogue so far on the FY 12 budget resolutions and the debt ceiling suggest that Congress is going to “kick the can” down the road a little longer, even until after the 2012 elections if they can. If the politically difficult job of cutting entitlements and raising revenue cannot be done now … then domestic discretionary programs, in particular, face outsized and draconian cuts in FY 12. To survive this potential slaughter, we need Congress to understand that “FDA is an exception because it is essential.”

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

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