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Regular Order Appropriations: Enshrined in Law, but Not in Practice

May 17, 2019

Macro-budgetary politics are inevitably messy. From the perspective of mid-May, everyone is hopeful, but there is little confidence that things will work out okay.

It is not supposed to be that way. Under the “good government” version — enshrined in law — the House and Senate agree on a budget that contains a ceiling for federal discretionary spending (the 302(a) number) and allocates those monies to conform with spending caps, if any. The appropriations committees then takes the 302(a) number and divides it among the 12 subcommittees (the 302(b) numbers). Appropriators then devote themselves to marking up all of the spending bills, gaining conference agreements on numbers and sending the bills to the President for signature by September 30 or earlier. This straightforward process, called “regular order appropriations,” was last achieved a decade ago.

Most years, the budget process takes more time and/or disagreements are so far-reaching that no budget is created at all. If there is no agreement, usually House and Senate leadership meet with their budget and appropriations committee members to construct an unofficial 302(a) number that all can agree upon. Appropriators then proceed to create the 302(b) subcommittee allocations. That oversimplifies some; often House and Senate do not agree on the unofficial 302(a) or the 302(b) allocations and both work with different numbers until the differences are reconciled when the House and Senate are ready to conference appropriations bills.

That is where things seem headed this year: House and Senate are likely to be working with different top-line and allocation numbers, to be reconciled later in the process. The twist is that that neither body is going to be working from the legally-mandated 302(a) ceilings set in 2011 by amendments to the Budget Control Act (BCA). As a result, numbers currently being used by the House — and “likely to be used” by the Senate — have no objective grounding. They might prove to be roughly accurate, but only if a budget deal retrospectively makes them so.

And that is where things are hung up, at least for now. The House and Senate can move forward, but will need to change the BCA caps to make what they are doing meaningful. Ultimately — hopefully sooner than later — House and Senate will agree on a 302(a) ceiling and put it into a bill that the President will sign. Failure to reach agreement would kick in the BCA ceilings and at least a $120 billion sequestration. While the impact may differ between defense and non-defense spending, this is a roughly a 10% across-the-board cut from the FY 19 funding levels.

As difficult and messy as things seems, it is not different from the recent past. Congress exceeded the cap in FY 13, leading to a massive sequestration. That was also the only year in the last dozen where FDA lost ground relative to the prior year. Since the sequestration, the House and the Senate have agreed on higher spending levels (usually in two-year increments) and put it in legislation that the President would sign.

Each time the specific politics differ, but the need to enact “raise the caps” legislation has now become a regular feature of the budget and appropriations process. Everything is in flux until that happens. This year will be no different.

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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