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Establishing Order: The Chickens and the Eggs

October 25, 2019

Despite the substantive and political complexity of this year’s budget fight, it all comes down to whether Congress can reach an agreement on 302(b) subcommittee spending allocations. Everything that needs to be decided is either directly determined by the 302(b) allocations or derived from the choices that will be embedded in the allocations.

Without a 302(b) agreement covering all 12 subcommittees:

  • the L-HHS bill (one of the first bills to pass last year) cannot move until there are enough funds under a 302(b) allocation to assure Democrats that human resources program monies are not being used to pay for Homeland Security programs (usually one of the last bills to pass).
  • The Military Construction/VA bill cannot move unless Republicans (and the White House) are sure that the subcommittee’s 302(b) allocation is sufficient to fund FY 19 projects that were delayed by the President’s emergency declaration and subsequent decision to move $3.6 billion of MilCon funding to pay for border wall construction.
  • The Defense bill cannot move until the L-HHS bill is resolved, reflecting a political balancing act. As well, there is the potential for defense spending to be part of another transfer for border wall construction, which would interest the White House.
  • The Homeland Security bill cannot move until there is a resolution of border wall funding (both total and where the monies will come from).

It is hard to tell whether the other bills could pass without a final 302(b) agreement. The most likely would be the four-bill minibus (Agriculture/FDA, Commerce/Justice, Transportation/HUD, and Interior/Environment) being considered by the Senate now. That would set in motion a conference committee that can start resolving issues, but probably will have to wait until the 302(b) agreement is in place. If any bills are passed without an agreement in place, this minibus is the most likely.

Following Senate consideration of the first minibus, Senator McConnell is interested in moving forward on a second four-bill minibus (L-HHS, DoD, State and Foreign Operations, and Energy and Water). Reflecting the difficulties of moving the L-HHS bill and the DoD funding (described above), he is unlikely to have the votes to move the minibus to floor debate without final 302(b) allocations.

If this seems like a particularly difficult path forward … it is. Congress really has only one alternative: a full-year Continuing Resolution. This would be bad for FDA (explained here). In the larger picture, a continuing resolution through September 30 of next year would negate the higher spending levels under the budget deal: a $22 billion loss for defense programs and a $24.6 billion loss for non-defense programs.

More than anything, this disastrous alternative is why the House and Senate have little choice but to keep negotiating.

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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