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Congress Doesn’t “Dispose” in a Vacuum

April 14, 2017

True or false: when it comes to appropriations, it doesn’t matter what the President actually proposes to Congress if his budget request is dead on arrival. A lot of voices, including some senior members of the House and Senate, have implied this might be true, by responding with the old axiom that “the President proposes and the Congress disposes.” This sounds good and may sometimes be the case, but the correct answer is “False”: it does matter what the President proposes.

This is a particularly critical issue for FDA because the President’s request for FY 18 is meant to support the agency, but may well have the opposite effect. If Congress does not enact his proposal for user fees dramatically above the currently negotiated levels (and they most certainly will not), then the President’s request has the net effect of proposing a $1 billion/37% cut in the agency’s BA funding.

If the President’s request doesn’t matter, then FDA would be entering the FY 18 appropriations cycle with a level playing field. Clearly, it won’t.

First, the budget and appropriations committees will be going through an exercise that culminates in each appropriations subcommittee receiving an allocation of how much money they can spend (this is known as the 302(b) allocation).  The allocation for the Ag/FDA subcommittee is likely to reflect the deep cuts being proposed by the President (in addition to FDA, USDA is scheduled for an aggregate of 20% cuts).  The process will not presume to tell the Ag/FDA subcommittee what to spend monies on, but because of the President’s request, the total is likely to force tough decisions by giving the subcommittee significantly less than in the prior fiscal year.

Second, the appropriations committees are always cognizant of the President’s request because they work from tables that use the President’s numbers as their base. Every funding decision they make will be displayed by whether it is above or below the President’s request and by how much. The pressure this generates to follow the President’s lead may be subtle but it has a genuine effect on the decision-making process.

Third, the Administration and its Congressional supporters will be inside the legislative process, advocating for adoption of the President’s budget request. Finally, and hardly least, the President’s veto power is a tool that makes clear that Congress does not have unfettered power to make funding decisions.

Although our focus is how this will play out in the FY 18 cycle, the current fight over FY 17 funding demonstrates how powerful the President’s request can be. As with FY 18, many Congressional leaders have characterized the President’s requests as “dead on arrival,” pointing to how late his proposals arrived, the magnitude of the issues he wants addressed, and the size of the funding shifts that would be imposed on just the 5 months remaining in the fiscal year. Congressional leadership wants to avert a government shutdown on April 28 and appear comfortable with omnibus legislation that the Appropriations committees have agreed to on a bipartisan basis. However, without some give by Congress on the President’s priorities (increase defense spending, enlarge border security and start building the wall), a veto threat is certain.

So, like it or not, what the President requests is a potent force in the appropriations process. Congress may “dispose,” but they don’t do it alone.

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