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“Wouldn’t It Be Wonderful”

September 30, 2019

For many years, appropriators tried to move the least controversial funding bills first. So, Military Construction/VA, Legislative Branch and DOD (before conflicts arose) were usually among the first four or five bills taken up by the appropriations committees. Ag/FDA was usually in the middle of the process. L-HHS was always toward the end, largely because of disagreements about policy riders.

Last year (for FY 19 funding), the thinking changed — DOD and Labor-HHS went first. In part, this was due to the perception that President Trump would veto L-HHS funding, but couldn’t do so politically if DOD was in the same bill. This actually worked nicely within Congress. It forced defense-oriented Members of Congress to vote for the L-HHS bill and supporters of domestic programs to vote for DOD. Not only was Congressional passage and Presidential signature relatively smooth, but it also kept those two bills (about 70% of federal discretionary funding) out of the subsequent fight that led to the government shutdowns in December 2018 and January 2019.

With such success in the last cycle, it made sense that appropriators and leadership wanted to again move the DOD and Labor-HHS funding bills first and together. However, both bills (along with Military Construction/VA and Homeland Security) have become encumbered (directly or indirectly) by conflicts over the funding of the border wall. This might have been difficult regardless, but it has become a raw issue because of the President’s decision to transfer FY 19 monies from defense accounts to funding for the wall.

So, now that that the primary strategy for moving appropriations bills this year has blown up, some commentators have suggested that Congress should pass the remaining, largely unencumbered funding bills first. This would restore some normalcy and security to a host of programs and would clear the decks for Congress to resolve the more difficult fight over border funding. This would be fantastic for FDA — the Ag/FDA bill is relatively unencumbered and FDA seems likely to gain additional funding if its appropriations bill is enacted. Eliminating the threat of a shutdown would also be beneficial for fiscal and program planning and for recruitment/retention of employees.

As noted at the beginning of this analysis, moving unencumbered bills first was actually Congress’ approach for many years. Looking at it that way … might make it easier for appropriators to get the six to eight easier bills out of the way this year. Ag/FDA would definitely benefit from that approach.

I am skeptical (as I suspect most of you are) that such an easy, practical, and historically sound approach will prevail. Over the last couple of years, hostage-taking in appropriations has become more common, more bloody, and more acceptable. It is not right (or at least it shouldn’t be right) that agencies such as FDA (and the Americans they serve) should suffer because of totally unrelated disputes.

This is a good year and a good situation for appropriators and House and Senate leadership (as well as the President) to see the common sense in de-escalating the appropriations wars and fast-tracking the easier bills. FDA would be in a good place if that were to occur.

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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