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Parsing the President’s Budget: Learnings to Date

January 30, 2015

This is the Alliance’s ninth President’s budget request. Honestly, repetition does not make it much easier. There is always the chaos of 300 (or more) pages of text, dozens of charts, and countless numbers … and the imperative to make sense of it, pronto. It’s not only our Alliance members we are serving at that moment. Ladd and I will also be busy answering reporter’s questions as well.

I have learned a few tricks along the way. One, featured in this week’s Advocacy at a Glance, is that the President’s request will sound much better than it really is. Ironically, even if Congress was interested in a new user fee and there was sufficient breadth of support among stakeholders, it still couldn’t pass and be implemented in time to collect fees on October 1, 2015 for FY 16. However, by the budget rules of engagement, new proposals (accompanied by legislative language) are put in the President’s request and scored as if they had a straight shot to passage and budget implications for the forthcoming fiscal year. From there, it’s a simple step to claiming an 8% increase for FDA when the reality might only be 1%.

In the same vein, adding together appropriations and user fee income (actual, not proposed) tends to distort the picture. User fee monies are collected for very specific purposes and cannot be used to plug holes when priorities and needs shift. This is not to be in the least critical of user fees — they have clearly benefited patients, companies, and FDA — but rather to point out that a user fee dollar is not available for just any need. In addition, more than $500 million of the user fees are for the tobacco center. Those dollars may be providing great value for the American people, but they are not available for FDA’s traditional responsibilities for safe foods and safe and effective medical products.

I have also learned where to go first. The text of the request and justification first becomes available (usually mid-to-late morning) and I immediately search for the All-Purpose table for authorized (non-user fee programs). That’s where you can see the bottom-line numbers that are justified by the hundreds of pages of text and tables. In addition, you can see the trend-lines for each FDA center, as well as the agency as a whole.

Finally, I have learned that on budget release day, the media is a source of insight that might not be gleaned elsewhere. Notably, they often have an embargoed copy for hours before OMB posts to their website. They also talk to lots of people, and thus often have the benefit of knowing more about trend-lines, rumors, and hidden directives than we can catch on the first read-through. So, often we are trading for information … they supply documents, fact sheets, and information that has been passed to them. In turn, we can offer them a quote (on most funding issues), straight answers, and an appreciation of the context in which numbers are presented.

So, Monday is a big day with powerful implications. Whether Congress accepts or rejects the President’s proposals, they will be used as a baseline when the subcommittees marks-up. They are also important because it is hard to get more money from Congress than the President asks for.

Hoping the budget isn’t too complicated and we get a robust increase for FDA.


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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