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Sometimes Things Just Don’t Go as Planned (or Hoped)

August 23, 2019

We are grateful that Congress passed the Bipartisan Budget Act (BBA) before August recess, setting more realistic budget ceilings. That makes it possible for Congress to address all the other issues that must be resolved before FY 20 appropriations are in place. This is a difficult task.

Under the category of “what could possibly go wrong?” here are some of the possibilities:

House and Senate are misaligned on non-defense spending levels. While BBA sets spending caps at levels above FY 19 appropriations, the House’s proposed non-defense spending is still about $15 billion higher than the BBA ceiling. Any program ​or agency that did well under the House-passed bills (including FDA) is at risk because House bills will have to be negotiated to substantially lower levels in conference.

House and Senate have different priorities within the BBA ceilings. The Senate (in tandem with the White House) is certain to ask for proportionally greater growth for homeland security, including controversial border initiatives and policies. In contrast, the House is likely to want to press for its higher funding levels for human services programs and NIH.

Difficulties with non-defense spending may doom any early agreement to combine defense and HHS funding together.  One of the (few) successes in the FY 19 funding cycle was combining the DOD and Labor-HHS spending bills into an minibus bill that covers nearly 70% of federal discretionary spending. Not coincidentally, that decision kept those agencies out of the 2019 federal shutdown. The plan to put these bills together again and send them to the President early, may not work this year if the House-passed HHS bill would require substantial funding reductions.

Setting program funding levels may be easier than resolving any appropriations riders not covered by the BBA agreement. To get BBA passed, there were a number of side agreements, including one to maintain status quo on controversial “poison pill” riders. It is clear that the existing Hyde amendment (no federal funds to be used for abortions) will continue, while new House-passed riders on border security will not. This still leaves a lot of unknowns as to what amendments are automatically in or out … or still must be fought over.

Manipulation of FY 19 spending undermines goodwill generated by the BBA agreement. An Administration proposal was floated this month and then withdrawn that would have rescinded $4 billion in FY 19 foreign aid spending. This would have exploited a long-standing loophole in the original 1974 Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act that may permit a late-in-the-fiscal-year Presidential rescission order to take effect without Congressional agreement. Even the suggestion of this or similar types of work-arounds underscores the fragile political truce that is essential to passage of FY 20 funding bills.

While these are macro-budgetary issues (explained here), their resolution affects the micro-budgetary fate of FDA. Uncertainty about the agency’s FY 20 funding makes it far harder for FDA to efficiently manage both old and new programs. FDA and its stakeholder community have much to gain from a smooth and timely appropriations process; nothing to gain from controversy, uncertainty, and funding under continuing resolutions.

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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