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Hurry Up and Slow Down (Once Again)

May 22, 2020

It been a decade since we have experienced the much-vaunted but rarely-seen “regular order appropriations” (explained here). Instead, the slow, halting progress of appropriations bills has become the norm.

The annual process begins with the President’s request, which provides a tone and often the parameters for subsequent negotiations on appropriations (discussed here). This is followed by often difficult negotiations to craft a Congressional Budget Resolution. While a comprehensive agreement rarely occurs, the appropriations bills cannot be completed without agreement on defense and non-defense budget caps. Some years it has taken longer to agree on those numbers than in other years.

Once the appropriations committees have all the input they need from others (President, budget committees, interested parties), they can devote themselves to moving the process forward as fast as possible. Appropriators want to appropriate; nobody becomes an appropriator if they didn’t want to make funding decisions. The committees’ objective is to come as close as possible to the regular order under which all 12 funding bills are enacted into law before the start of the new fiscal year. Continuing Resolutions, however necessary or inevitable, just delay the funding decisions that appropriators want to be making.

So far, this year is no different than others. A strong commitment by appropriators to get the job done is being slowed by road blocks that pop up with some frequency.

In the House, prospects for moving FY 21 appropriations bills through committee in June and onto the floor in July, took a serious hit this week. As reported by Politico Pro late yesterday (May 21): a spokesperson for the House Appropriations Committee stated,

[t]he Committee will mark up those bills [appropriations] after coronavirus legislation is completed, and we will announce a schedule for markups at a later date.

Taken literally, that could make the House appropriations process a captive of the Senate schedule.

In the Senate, it is possible that coronavirus legislation may delay Senate action on appropriations, as well as have an impact on timing of House appropriations. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been adamant that the next coronavirus legislation (the fifth one) needs to wait awhile until Senators and the Administration can assess the impact of the first four. In addition, there is, at present, a tremendous gap between the House-passed bill and McConnell’s stated priorities.

For those reasons, it was believed that the Senate would get to the coronavirus legislation later in June or July and could start with appropriations sooner. However, it has become clear that several Republican Senators up for re-election (notably Senator Gardner of Colorado) feel that the Senate needs to move the coronavirus legislation quickly, which would put it in the queue ahead of appropriations bills. We will have a better sense of how this plays out when the Senate returns the week of June 1.

So this year is just a continuation of the familiar pattern of hurry up and slow down, even if the issues and roadblocks are different from prior years.

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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