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Trying to See Clearly Through Some VERY Dark Glass

June 20, 2014

In last week’s Analysis and Commentary, we were among the first to raise the possibility that the FY 15 appropriations process was about to hit some bumps. Our focus was the abrupt decision of the House not to continue its consideration of the Agriculture/FDA appropriations bill on which debate had begun. It is now slated for sometime this summer.

It was unclear whether the House planned to work through some contentious issues, then move the bill back onto the calendar or the delay reflected the wishes of House conservatives to assess whether they have the votes for more dramatic cuts to non-defense programs than those called for by the Ryan-Murray budget compromise. The cause of the reassessment, it was conjectured, was the surprise primary election loss of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

By the end of this week, the House situation was really no clearer. Meantime, the Senate situation has deteriorated for reasons that appear related to 2014 election cycle. First, the Appropriations Committee decided to create a $180 billion mini-bus composed of three appropriations bills, including Agriculture-FDA. Then at least two more bills were waylaid at the committee level over contentious amendments.

Will the Senate continue to consider the mini-bus on the floor next week? That has been the question all week, finally ended last night by a decision not to proceed until agreements are reach on amendments. This is a further setback for Senate Appropriations Chair Barbara Mikulski, who is determined to have a complete set of appropriations bills passed by September 30. We know that House Appropriations Chair Hal Rogers shares in her determination.

What has become clear is that the appropriations process is no longer on the cleared track laid out by the Ryan-Murray agreement. The multi-year absence of “regular order appropriations” may have dulled everyone’s memories (including our own) about how messy appropriations bills can be. Primarily, but not exclusively, they are the target for every issue that Senators or Representatives want considered, but for which there is no convenient vehicle. While you can’t legislate on appropriations bills, there are well-established mechanisms for achieving the same end through carefully-crafted appropriations amendments. Even failing that, Members of Congress can use the appropriations bills and opportunities for amendments to score points back home or creating more widespread awareness of a cause they champion.

While we only track FDA, the potential demise of the Ryan-Murray agreement and the deterioration of bipartisan commitment to speed appropriations bills … are not good for us.

Note: This week’s Analysis and Commentary was written by Steven Grossman, the deputy executive director of the Alliance for a Stronger FDA

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