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“More of the Same” and Yet “Entirely Different”

March 30, 2012

Every year about this time, I write a column that starts: “Another Alliance Hill Lobby Day is in the books.”

A large, multi-stakeholder group of Alliance members met with 50 Hill offices this past Wednesday. The day was a success.

We had already met with most of the offices of legislators on the House and Senate Agriculture/FDA appropriations subcommittees. So Hill Day meetings focused on other appropriators and members of the authorizing committees.

Last year, the common theme (from Republicans and almost all Democrats) was that dealing with the federal budget was a fiscal necessity and not just a political issue. It was a particularly difficult time for staff because so many prior assumptions about the work of Congress were being challenged, while at the same time there was a complete lack of normalcy or predictability.

Almost every meeting with staff last year became a discussion about deficit reduction, often accompanied by sweeping statements by staff about needed reductions in the size and function of government. Not surprisingly, we received a lot of hard questions about the FDA, and some skepticism about making an exception for FDA. We heard a number of times: “Surely there must be ways to reduce the size and scope of the agency along with the rest of government.”

This year’s Alliance Hill Day managed to be both “more of the same” and “entirely different.”

More of the same: there is still no normal way to conduct House or Senate business — either at the committee or floor level. Staff are still asking tough questions in most meetings, but there was much less rhetoric. Nearly everybody feels certain there will be large cuts, but not how much, when, and by what legislative vehicle.

As with last year, predictability is non-existent. We received varying answers on almost every question about what the future holds for the appropriations process and for FDA. At a large number of the meetings, staffers were remarkably direct about their inability to tell us what happens next or to suggest how to best defend FDA politically in this environment.

Yet, the experience was also very different from last year, particularly the mood. There seemed to be remarkably little anxiety on the Hill about the lack of predictability and the absence of normalcy. After a year of it, staff seems to have fallen back on the basics: life goes on, you do what you have to do on your boss’s behalf and you take positions, but don’t plan too far ahead.

Deficit reduction still hangs over everybody and everything, with no resolution in sight. Yet, unlike last year, I sense that staffers believe that Congress will persevere, although based on their comments, they don’t have the faintest clue how this will happen.

Compared to last year, it was a much better environment for us as FDA advocates, even though the overall budget situation is as bad or worse. Staffers were more attentive, they asked better questions, and they seemed to grasp the need to choose priorities rather than achieve deficit reduction willy-nilly. The feedback was remarkably positive about this year’s materials and our substantive case for the exceptional funding needs of the agency.

We kept saying: when the moment comes and the deals are made … FDA needs to be at the top of the list of federal programs and agencies that are protected from cuts and considered for increases. More staff (certainly more than last year) seemed to understand our point that FDA is like air traffic controllers — intuitively you know that you can’t run a responsible government without properly funding them.

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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