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What May the Road Look Like Come November?

September 19, 2014

I feel like I’ve written a lot of columns in which the phrase “kick the can down the road” has appeared. Over the last 5 years, Congress has given me lots of opportunities with appropriations and budget issues.

The latest CR — covering October 1 to December 11, not quite the first quarter of FY 15 — at least has the virtue of having been done cleanly and early. We are glad that there won’t be an OMB memorandum to federal agencies providing direction on closing rules in the case of a government shutdown. But for the CR passing early, that memo would have been making the rounds next week.

So, the government will stay open through December 11 for certain. FDA will have nearly the same amount to spend as it did in FY 14, despite the need for additional funding to meet new challenges and new programs. Further, the agency will be limited in what new starts and endeavors it can undertake if they are not continuations of activities from FY 14. It is unclear whether that restriction will have any impact on the agency. As I have noted previously, at times this characteristic of CRs has been strictly interpreted, other times not.

When Congress returns after election day, it will have about 3 or 4 weeks (excluding Thanksgiving week) to figure out what to do with the rest of FY 15. Appropriations leadership is clearly hopeful that an omnibus package can be put together — one bill or several “minibuses” that represent the 12 appropriations bills rolled into one or just a couple of vehicles. The strategy is tried and true — it is much harder for Members to hold a bill up over some particular concerns if they are also holding up a major chunk of government funding that has no relationship to the issue. It also helps that this approach reduces the number of times they have to vote.

The omnibus approach worked for FY 14, albeit it was well into the second quarter of the fiscal year before it was adopted. The primary alternatives are to: (1) fund the entire government for the remainder of the fiscal year on a Continuing Resolution; or (2) adopt a mixed bill containing full appropriations language for some agency clusters (e.g., the Agriculture/FDA one that we are part of) and a CR for others. For FDA’s specific interests, it would be far preferable to be in an appropriations bill rather than funded by a CR. Among the advantages are the potential for a higher funding level and many fewer restrictions on how money can be spent.

As the appropriations “can” gets kicked down the road again, it is important to realize that the road might look different in November. Typically — and despite high hopes — most “lame duck” Congressional sessions are not very productive. We can be sure that funding the government will be one of the essential tasks, even if little else is done. But if things fall apart sufficiently, then Congress will have to consider a further Continuing Resolution, which might run until February 15 or March 31. This is already a theme with some conservatives who would have preferred that the current CR go until January (rather than December 11) so that a potentially Republican Senate could adopt more stringent spending measures after it convenes. That did not happen for this first FY 15 CR, but could look different in November, depending on the election results.

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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