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Advocacy at a Glance

April 17, 2020

Top-line: The Congressional schedule and work practices are uncertain over the next few months, leaving many questions about whether and how appropriations bills will move forward. There is a possibility that increased funding at public health agencies, including FDA, may be exempt from FY 21 budget caps. The Alliance’s meeting with Dr. Boon, FDA Associate Commissioner for Food Policy and Response, is described in this week’s Analysis and Commentary.

Congress Out Until at Least May 4; Not Clear How Work Will Be Done. Unless emergency legislation requires Congress to return to DC, both the House and Senate will be out until at least May 4. In the intervening 2½ weeks, leadership will be trying to use unanimous consent to move select items forward that relate to fighting the pandemic and restoring the economy. Meanwhile, proposals are being developed to allow the House and Senate to work and vote remotely (from their offices or their districts), but it is unclear what leadership will agree to. In any case, these won’t have any effect in the short term because rules changes are certain to require an in-person floor vote.

Appropriations — In Person, Virtual, or Impossible? Prospects for the FY 21 appropriations process are uncertain. Leadership, especially in the House, is still talking about taking the appropriations process through to completion before October 1. Assuming that the House and Senate can agree on individual appropriations bills and Congress spends sufficient time in DC, then appropriations could be completed the traditional way (i.e., in person). There is talk of a virtual mark-up process, but there are obstacles to this at the subcommittee and committee levels. Even if these are overcome, floor time would still be an issue (see prior story).

What we know for sure: staff is hard at work on the bills and House subcommittees have been given their 302(b) spending allocations. If agreements can be reached, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer is still saying the appropriations bills could come to the floor in June. The opposite view, held by many in DC, is that agreements will be impossible to reach and a Continuing Resolution will be required to fund the government on October 1. If so, the CR may extend past the election or until March 2021 to allow the new Congress to organize and consider funding bills.

Cap Exemptions Possible and Might Include FDA. When Congress agreed upon budget ceilings for FY 20 and FY 21, almost the entire increase above FY 19 spending levels was front-loaded into FY 20. As a result, Congress will have little new money in FY 21 and most increases will need to be offset by decreases elsewhere in the budget. Anticipating the difficulty that this might create for public health agencies involved in combating COVID-19, there have been discussions about exempting those agencies from the budget caps. The idea is originating with appropriators involved with the Labor-HHS funding bill and we have seen mentions of NIH, CDC, and other programs they oversee, but not yet FDA. As the idea progresses, the Alliance will be an advocate for including FDA in any exemptions to the cap on non-defense discretionary spending.

FDA’s Food Safety Programs: Responding to the Pandemic Threat While Assuring a Safe Food Supply. The medical product side of FDA has (understandably) been getting most of the attention, but there is a lot going on with FDA’s food programs. So, it was timely for the Alliance to meet (virtually) this week with Dr. Caitlin Boon, FDA Associate Commissioner for Food Policy and Response. One of our members who was on the call described the briefing as “very reassuring.” Our meeting with Dr. Boon (and several of her colleagues) is described in this week’s Analysis and Commentary.

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