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Some Fireworks … But Mostly What Was Expected

June 3, 2011

The full House Appropriations Committee met late Tuesday and marked up the FY 12 Agriculture/FDA appropriations bill. The session, while full of fireworks on a number of issues, did not change the subcommittee’s proposed appropriation of $2.163 billion for FDA. This is a $284 million cut from the amount that FDA received in FY 11.

As has been discussed in prior columns, the agriculture appropriations subcommittee received a relatively small allocation of $17.2 billion to cover its discretionary programs. This meant finding $2.6 billion in cuts from the FY 11 level passed in April. In turn, FY 11 was a reduction of more than $3 billion from the FY 10 level.

All of this reflects the difficulty of reducing government spending if the only focus is discretionary programs. The agencies and programs in the subcommittee appropriations bill — mandatory and discretionary spending — amount to $125.5 billion for FY 12, only 14% of which is discretionary spending. The increase in mandatory programs is over $3 billion. As a result, the overall committee total would increase in FY 12 despite the large (and largely unfair) cuts to discretionary programs.

We have hopes for a higher allocation in the Senate, as well as far more concern about cutting FDA. None of this is likely to happen until the House, the Senate and the President agree on a package of deficit reduction measures to accompany an increase in the national debt ceiling. The Treasury Department is already employing a variety of tools to postpone a government default, but have said that a deal is needed by August 2 to avoid that terrible outcome. While cutting a deal is likely to be hard, there appears to be a growing understanding within Congress that a deal can’t wait until the last moment.

In addition to the severe cut in FDA funding, the House also produced a committee report on the bill and adopted one amendment that affects FDA. Here are a few highlights from the report:

  • In defending the proposed cut to FDA funding, the Committee leans heavily on the amount of growth in the agency budget since FY 2004 and the degree to which this level of spending is viewed as unsustainable.
  • In its expression of concern about past increases, the Committee repeats the claim that the Food Safety Modernization Act would require $1.4 billion in increased budget authority appropriations — but doesn’t note that this is the CBO estimate of the aggregate dollars required over the first 5 years of the law, not the amount that would be added to FDA’s base in any year, even the fifth.
  • In order to focus resources, FDA is strongly encouraged to set up a pilot project to expedite imports for highly compliant importers.
  • i\In order to achieve independent post-market surveillance, FDA is directed to submit plans to Congress for an independent office to carry out this work.

At the committee mark-up, the committee also adopted an amendment that directs FDA to use only “hard science” data when deciding whether to restrict the use of a substance or a compound. This passed on a party-line vote after spirited discussion. Democrats complained that it would adversely affect agency work, lead to poorer decisions and, also, that the amendment constituted “legislating on an appropriations bill,” which is not permitted. Republicans defended the amendment as a necessary check on FDA initiatives that relied on focus groups, consumer behavior and cost studies, rather than toxicology, epidemiology and risk assessment. Later, the amendment’s sponsor, Representative Rehberg (R-Montana) said his target was FDA’s efforts to restrict the use of antibiotics in livestock. Meantime, a group of public health and medical organizations opposed the amendment because they believe it will undercut tobacco regulations. Since the language is far broader than either livestock or tobacco, it is impossible to know its full impact on FDA decision making.

One possibility we have heard is that the Rules Committee will knock the language out of the bill before it goes to the floor, justifying its removal as legislating on an appropriations bill. If not, Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA), ranking Democrat on the authorizing committee with jurisdiction (House Energy and Commerce) has announced his intention to fight the provision on the floor.

The Senate returns from its recess next week, while the House will be taking a one week break. The earliest that the House could consider the agriculture appropriations bill would be the week of June 13.

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

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