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The Morning After Effect (on the President’s Budget Request)

February 2, 2018

The day after the budget release, practically every news story will quote important people (including Members of Congress) saying: the President’s budget is dead on arrival (DOA). To explain their point, Republicans and Democrats alike will talk about how “the President proposes and the Congress disposes.” The point is well-taken; indeed, is enshrined in our Constitution.

However, when it comes to the President’s budget request, the reality is quite different: this is not a simple case of proposing and disposing. I often wonder why so many commentators miss the lines of influence that start with the budget request and end with the President’s proposals impacting final Congressional decisions. To paraphrase an aphorism about President Trump: those diminishing the impact of the President’s budget request are taking it literally but not seriously. Instead, I would argue, the President’s request should be taken seriously, but not literally.

If you take the President’s request as a whole and ask “will this become law,” then I suppose that you can say it is DOA. Nonetheless, as a blueprint for the coming year it is highly influential. As it gets more specific: agency by agency, program by program, line item by line item, the President’s request is very much alive and likely to be at the center of funding debates. FDA will not be an exception to this.

Budget expert and Forbes columnist Stan Collender disagrees with me about the impact of President’s budget requests, but also makes an interesting argument that — regardless of what occurred in the past — this year will be much worse. He goes so far as to say that the President’s request will be “utterly worthless.” His point: there will eventually be an FY 18/19 budget deal that will increase federal discretionary spending by about 10% (more than $100 billion per year). The details have not been finalized. Once that’s completed, Congress will have to appropriate that money to specific programs. That can’t happen until the budget deal is in place.

So, he correctly concludes that virtually every line item in the President’s request, as well as projected spending levels for defense/non-defense programs, will be the wrong numbers. This will be terribly confusing, but, in my opinion, it doesn’t make the President’s request a pointless exercise. To use FDA as an example — if the President requests a $100 million cut in FDA funding, then that will be one of the first things that appropriators will consider once they have final FY 18 numbers and start the FY 19 process. If the President’s request is a cut, we don’t need to wait for the revised FY 18 baseline to know that we will have a fight on our hands.

Next week, we will look at some of the likely misunderstandings around the President’s budget request for FDA and explain, for example, why the “headline” numbers from OMB are certain to be misleading.

Editorial note: The Analysis and Commentary section is written by Steven Grossman, Deputy Executive Director of the Alliance for a Stronger FDA.

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