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August as Usual in DC? Definitively NOT!

August 24, 2018

“Summertime, and the livin’ is easy,” according to the oft-recorded George Gershwin song. Maybe it’s true most years, but not in DC in the summer of 2018.

I have spent innumerable Augusts in DC and it feels strange to have Congress in session. Those of us who are, or have been, Hill staff have always cherished the August recess. This is the long one, the one where you get to catch your breath while your Member of Congress (a.k.a. “the boss”) is on a CODEL overseas, resting at the lake, or shaking constituent hands back in the district. And when the Hill staff get their break, things become less hectic for many of the rest of us.

Not this August, not this year. The Senate has just completed its third mini-bus appropriations bill, containing both DOD spending and Labor/HHS funding. Altogether, the bill covers 65% of all federal discretionary funding. It represents clever packaging that might diffuse any kind of “guns vs. butter” debate on priorities. The message: if you want more defense spending, then you have to accept increased funding of human resource programs … and vice versa. With successful passage, the Senate has completed nine of the 12 funding bills, bundled into three mini-bus packages.

The Senate’s overall strategy is to strip funding bills of policy riders and poison pills to avoid protracted negotiations and possible deadlock. At some point, probably the third week of September, this will force the House to decide whether to accept the no-controversy Senate approach (presumably with compromises between House and Senate funding levels) or go into the mid-term election with the federal government funded under a CR. When that time comes, the President’s views will also matter — both as it may affect any House vote but also because he could veto the mini-buses and force CR funding.

Another interesting variable is how Congress will handle the three appropriations bills that the Senate has not yet taken up. The fate of State/Foreign Operations and Commerce/Justice/Science are unclear, although the President definitely wants State Department cutbacks that are unlikely to be agreeable to Congress. The third bill, Homeland Security, is likely to be funded by CR and taken up after the mid-term election.  Congress’s plan is to use the Homeland Security bill as the vehicle to resolve disagreements over border security and funding of “the wall.”  The White House may not be willing to defer on resolving homeland security if it means letting the funding bills go through in September.

FDA’s interest in this broader story is far from academic. As an agency with reasonable prospects for a big increase in FY 19, its best interests — by far — are for passage of the Ag/FDA funding bill by October 1. That could occur as a stand-alone bill, but more likely as part of a four-bill mini-bus that awaits House consideration after Labor Day. Under a CR, FDA would not have access to any planned new dollars/programs and would have limited ability to begin new initiatives.

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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