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When Will the Senate Consider FDA Appropriations?

June 24, 2011

This week’s most asked question has been: when will the Senate start moving on FY 12 appropriations, specifically FDA? Consistently, I have answered: the Senate probably won’t begin marking up appropriations bills until a deal is cut on the debt ceiling legislation. Here’s why:

The House was able to act because it passed a budget resolution for FY 12 setting a total amount of spending for the US government. The House Appropriations committee was then able to divvy this money up by subcommittee (known as 302(b) allocations). Each subcommittee chair knew how much spending could be included in their bill.

The Senate has not passed a budget resolution for FY 12. Reportedly, Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee are split between those wanting to provide more protection for domestic spending programs and those wanting deeper cuts (albeit, perhaps not as deep as the House). So, the Senate Appropriations committee has not been given guidance on how much it can spend (technically, the appropriations process is not bound by the budget resolution, but that is a different issue).

In the past, when the Senate (or the House) has not passed a budget resolution, the Appropriations Committees have made some assumptions about total spending and have proceeded. Usually that involves picking a baseline, such as the total in the President’s budget request or the prior year’s total (plus or minus a certain percentage). In most years, the subcommittees submit their requests and the full committee chairman adjusts them so the total is under the agreed-upon ceiling.

This year, it is politically perilous for the Senate to even agree informally upon the baseline. The President’s total request is too high for Republicans and also for a substantial number of Democrats. Senate Republicans profess to support the House total, but that is too low for even the most aggressive deficit-cutting Democrats.

The only “safe” number for the Senate is the total that comes out of the debt ceiling agreement, which will define how much the federal budget must be cut. Presumably, that agreement will set spending levels for this coming year and at least 2 or 3 years, thereafter. At that point, the Senate appropriations process can start.

The Senate is in session next week, then out of town for the week of Fourth of July.  If a deal has been cut by the time they return on July 11, then a few appropriations committee bills could move before August recess and the rest would be done in September. Since Agriculture/FDA appropriations has already been completed in the House, it is more likely that FDA would be one of the earlier bills to move in the Senate.

The timing for all of this is variable. The Treasury has told Congress that all borrowing authorities (plus bookkeeping tricks) will be exhausted by August 2. Negotiations are ongoing, but the prospects change daily. If negotiations break down, it is also possible that Congress could vote on a comparatively modest set of cuts ($500 billion to $1 trillion), along with raising the debt ceiling for another 6 to 8 weeks. This is not anyone’s preferred option. It is unlikely, but not impossible. Were this to occur, appropriations bills might be pushed into the Fall.

A final thought: If this year’s pattern follows prior years, Senate subcommittee leaders and appropriations staff have already pulled together possible program allocations based on different spending levels. These are not formal or fixed, just starting points for discussion when the total for each subcommittee becomes available. These preparations may allow fast action if the subcommittee chair and ranking member are in close agreement on how to spend the allocation when they are eventually given one.

An exception to all of this is the Military Construction-VA appropriations bill, where the Senate is using the House-passed version as the benchmark. This is also the least controversial of all 12 appropriations bills.

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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