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Angling for Optimism

August 11, 2019

Measured by the number of days to the start of the new fiscal year (about 50) the number of days Congress will be in DC in September (less than 3 weeks) … and the length of time it took the get a budget deal (nearly 3 months), it is hard to envision Congress completing or nearly completing 12 funding bills by October 1.

BBA resolved issues of aggregate funding and the split between defense and non-defense spending. Otherwise, it solved none of the issues that normally cause the funding process to take months to complete. While more conflict is surely coming, we already have the first warning shot: the Senate wants to spend more than the House on Homeland Security, with a focus on programs that the House will not agree to fund (notably, monies for a southern border wall).

Beyond the usual expected disagreements, there is a built-in conflict-maker. In order to get started on appropriations bills without a budget deal, the House “deemed” a top-line spending number and, as a negotiating tactic, the House numbers were intentionally high. So, to the surprise of no one, the non-defense spending caps in the BBA are significantly above FY 19 funding levels, yet well below the House levels. As a result, the Senate bills may be better or worse than the House for specific accounts, but the aggregate in the Senate bill will need to be about $15 billlion less than House bills for non-defense programs.

Between differences in priorities and the substantial misalignment between the House funding levels and the much lower final BBA levels, it is hard to see many funding bills reaching the President in September. Most of the political media are talking about three or four bills at most and cautioning that even that number might be too high. In that case, most of the federal government will start the fiscal year on a continuing resolution. On the other hand, the initial discussions have been about moving DOD, L-HHS, and Energy-Water together as the first bill.  This would be in the spirit of the BBA compromises, as well as a repeat of last year’s success in getting the President to agree to funds for human services programs in exchange for defense funding.

In short, the prevailing forecast for September is lots of Senate activity built upon positions that will maximize conflict with the House and draw negotiations into October and beyond. No one is thinking of a shutdown on October 1, but in these circumstances, it cannot be ruled out.

Despite how heavy the lift is, I think there is a case for higher expectations for September. As a general matter, appropriations committee members — Republicans and Democrats — are less ideological and more compromise-minded in their appropriations role than the full House and Senate in which they serve. Further, appropriations committee staff tend to stay a long time. They know each other and how to reach agreements quickly. We know that Senate appropriations committee staff are likely to spend most of August in “bill-drafting” mode, so that the Members can move quickly in September. All of these are reasons for optimism.

It is in FDA’s interests to start the fiscal year with increased resources and, also, not on a CR. We have a large stake in optimism being rewarded.

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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