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Reeling, Writhing, Drawling, Stretching, and Fainting in Coils

July 11, 2014

Earlier this year, we repeated the expectation of most in Congress that the Ryan-Murray budget deal of December 2013, followed by passage of the FY 14 omnibus appropriations bill, had set up a pathway for a smooth appropriations process for FY 15. Sadly, it is not working out that way. The much-heralded “regular order appropriations process” is on life support and there are widespread rumors that it is already dead.

The projected (smooth) FY 15 process was a welcome respite after several years of House and Senate leadership deciding appropriations levels based on macro-budgetary (and macro-political) considerations. Said another way, when Congressional leaders (not appropriators) are focused on budget deficits and major shifts in key federal functions, their conversation never reaches the level of detail that considers the fate of individual agencies. In such an environment, the simple statement — FDA deserves more money based on its vital function and growing mission — is like a rose growing somewhere in a thousand-acre forest.

The overall budget/appropriations situation is dire because of a number of factors. Although Ryan-Murray set FY 15 ceilings for total spending, defense spending, and non-defense spending, the appropriations committees chose not to pre-conference the 301(b)(2) allocations that say how much each subcommittee (i.e., area of  government activity) will receive. Not surprisingly, House and Senate, as well as both parties, have different priorities and propose to divvy up the money differently.

Further, the available dollars were already extremely tight. Overall, FY 15 discretionary spending (including defense) is slated to increase by only $2 billion above the FY 14 level. Despite how it may seem, this does not assure level funding as a base. There are many programs that automatically increase each year, meaning all remaining programs, in the aggregate, will average less than their base.

On top of this, there have been some difficult and unpredictable circumstances involving rather large amounts of money. Estimated revenue in FY 15 from one program may have been overstated by several billion dollars and arguably needs to be offset with program cuts. The President has recently requested supplemental funding of about $4 billion to deal with a border crisis involving children cut off from their families. How much of this might need to be offset is under discussion. In addition to these two, there are the usual anomalies that add up to serious money — just the inevitable variation to be expected in forecasting anything as complex as the government’s $1 trillion dollar budget for discretionary spending.

To further complicate the appropriations picture, the 2014 mid-term elections are casting an ever wider shadow over all legislative activities. In particular, the primary election defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and the near-defeat of Senator Thad Cochran by Tea Party candidates has further emboldened deficit hawks in the House to consider whether delaying appropriations is better than even modest compromises.

In short, the appropriations process is going through difficult twists and turns with no certain outcome. It is too early to decide that a continuing resolution is unavoidable, but not too early to say that the likelihood is increasing almost daily.

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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