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Is Another Shutdown a Real Possibility?

October 19, 2019

House and Senate leadership, particularly on the appropriations committees, would like nothing better than to pass appropriations bills before the CR runs out on November 21. The odds were never good, but have grown steeper with reports that little or no progress has been made during the two-week congressional recess.

If needed, the next CR would probably extend four more weeks until December 19. Failing resolution by that date, then a subsequent CR would probably extend to February 15 or a similar date that provides more time for negotiations after New Year’s. At some point, Congress could decide that resolution is not possible and pass full-year CRs for all or part of the federal government. (As we have reported earlier, a full-year CR is not a good outcome for FDA.)

However, there are strong countervailing pressures on Congress to keep talking and not to declare the process futile. Notably, failure on FY 20 funding makes it virtually certain that FY 21 will be funded on a Continuing Resolution through February 15 or March 31, 2021. That is, if FY 20 can’t be resolved, the appropriations process is broken until after the 2020 elections and the convening of the new Congress. Eighteen months of government funding by CR would leave both parties (and the nation) with an enormous set of uncertainties.

All of this suggests extended, undoubtedly painful negotiations, probably over months. However, on October 17, the Washington Post speculated that a shutdown is a possibility and might occur when the current CR expires on November 21. The key sentences from the WP story:

Trump is not interested in signing other domestic spending bills until there is agreement on the border wall, according to a senior administration official …. Funding for many federal agencies expires Nov. 21, and an impasse would lead to a sizable government shutdown, bigger in scope than what happened less than one year ago.

While a shutdown is always a possibility when a Continuing Resolution comes to an end, the consequences are so drastic that it is rarely seen as an acceptable or likely option. Even in the face of this provocative news story, it is easier to imagine this is saber-rattling on the part of the Administration rather than a serious threat. However, as last winter’s shutdown demonstrated, anything can happen in the current political environment. The possibility of the Administration forcing a shutdown cannot be dismissed as an idle threat.

While taking it seriously, there would seem to be two strong arguments for why a shutdown is unlikely to occur in November. First, shutdowns are not popular, and the White House and Congressional Republicans must anticipate taking the blame, as they did last winter. The closer we get to November 21, the more we would expect Republicans to urge the President to defer any drastic actions until a subsequent CR.

Secondly, the consequences of a shutdown in November would be far more extreme than last winter. At that time, both Defense and Labor-HHS bills had already become law, meaning that 70% of all federal discretionary spending was not affected. The more federal funds that are impacted, the greater the likelihood that taxpayers and voters will feel the consequences of a shutdown personally. Further, the Pentagon and defense industries are a strong lobbying force that was not involved in the prior shutdown.

Recognizing the already-demonstrated negative impact of an FDA shutdown, the Alliance will continue to monitor this situation closely and report to the stakeholder community through the Friday Update and, as needed, other means.

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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