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Planning for a Late Night Watching “the Box”

October 31, 2014

Most of political Washington is talking about the latest poll numbers and the mood of voters in various states. Once the election is over — especially if the Senate winds up with a Republican majority — all other public commentary will be drowned out by the sudden rush to know: how will the victors govern and what does this mean for my concerns?

Remarkably, with regard to FDA, much of this can be answered now. No crystal ball is required.

First, no matter which party is the majority in the Senate, the minority leader is the key person in how the body will function. Very little that is important can pass without 60 votes. So, the majority must always find ways to capture minority party votes. This can be done in many different ways, as was illustrated by the negotiations on the Affordable Care Act. Ultimately the central question is whether the minority leader can keep his side together on critical votes or has to set them free to vote whichever way they want. For the most part, Senator McConnell has been successful in keeping his troops together, but it has made for an unproductive Senate. As to FDA-specific legislation, it will require bipartisan support regardless of which party is in charge. That has been true for years.

Second, the best outcome for FDA is the election of individuals — from either party — who are committed to resolving the nation’s budget impasse. Until the parties can agree on entitlements and taxes, Congress is, by default, going to concentrate on cutting discretionary spending. I believe most people on Capitol Hill understand that this won’t actually work — eliminating all federal discretionary spending, including defense, would still not produce a balanced budget.

Nonetheless, until Congress acts to break the deadlock (and, eventually they will have to), we face untenable pressures to reduce federal programs, including FDA and NIH. Even when this occurs, things may not be easy for FDA. The agency (and we) will still need to demonstrate FDA’s value to the American people and show that appropriated funding is being spent wisely and effectively.

Third, many of the committees overseeing FDA will have new leaders in the new Congress. However, with one exception, the changes are the result of retirements. Thus, we have known these were coming for months and they won’t be resolved on Election Day. Decisions will come from party caucuses in December and January. Democratic leadership will change on House Energy and Commerce (Representative Waxman’s retirement) and Republican leadership may change on House Ag/FDA appropriations committees (three retirements of more senior members will give Representative Aderholt a choice). Democratic leadership on Senate HELP will change (Senator Harkin’s retirement). Only with regard to Democratic leadership on the Senate appropriations committee is the election immediately germane (Senator Pryor, the Ag-FDA subcommittee chair, is in a tight race for re-election).

All of this said, I will still be in front of my television set next Tuesday night, watching the returns. The clash of candidates and ideas is still compelling to me, even though key outcomes for FDA won’t be decided that day.

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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