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FDA and Congress: Prospects for 2012

Barely more than a year ago, the US experienced a “wave” election—sweeping a Republic majority into the House of Representatives and reducing the Democratic majority in the Senate. As a result, FDA faced a Congress in 2011 that contained fewer friends and less support than previously.

The consequences, thus far, have been small. Congress became so absorbed with deficit reduction that it accomplished little else this year and spent almost no time on FDA issues. Circumstances will change this in 2012 and, fortunately, we have strong clues about Congressional attitudes and priorities.

At the end of 2010, FDA Matters devoted six blog columns to examining the impact of the election on FDA and its regulated industries. As predicted, Congress was more interested in deficit reduction in 2011 than any other topic. This shows no sign of abating.

For FDA, this means constant pressure from Congress on funding, particularly from sequestration and other threats of across-the-board cuts in federal spending. FDA’s best position is always to have its needs evaluated on an individual agency basis—rather than being part of a larger funding action.

Congress chose not to address FDA’s FY 11 appropriation in the post-election session. Instead, it addressed this in April of 2011 on fairly favorable terms to the agency.

Similarly, FY 12 appropriations demonstrated that Congress was still receptive to partially meeting FDA’s growing resource needs, but it became clearer that future funding increases will be even harder to get. Arguments for FDA being an exception to deficit reduction will be made often next year by agency supporters within Congress and by outside advocates.

In general, very little legislation passed Congress in 2011 and virtually none without bi-partisan support. FDA Matters pointed out that achieving such consensus was possible on FDA issues when Democrats from technology-oriented regions joined with Republicans on positions that could enjoy industry/patient or industry/consumer support. This approach did not produce any legislation in 2011.

However, technology-oriented Democrats are likely to join Republicans in shaping the user fee reauthorization legislation, which Congress “must-pass” in 2012. It seems certain that the bi-partisan pathways will produce most of the legislation, including new authority for drug import inspections, incentives for development of antibiotics and provisions to address drug shortages.

I expected a substantial ramp-up of Congressional oversight and investigations of FDA and regulated industries, which never materialized. There were a few hearings, but never the vehemence or persistence that would have represented a major change from the previous Congress.  I still believe there will be an uptick in these activities, but most likely it will be deferred until late 2012 or 2013, after Congress adopts the user fee reauthorization legislation.

A final column last year asked the provocative question: will the new Congress be good for FDA-regulated industries? Republicans generally want federal regulations and regulatory agencies trimmed back significantly. In contrast, FDA-regulated industries generally want more flexible regulatory requirements and greater certainty in their implementation, but are not interested in eliminating FDA’s regulatory responsibilities or limiting its ability to assure public health and safety.

So far, this Congress has not come to a firm conclusion about FDA. It has not embraced FDA as an essential government service—like national defense and air-traffic controllers—but neither has it marked FDA as a particular target to starve, roll-back, harass or marginalize.

The deciding factor may be how FDA responds to Congress’ insistence that FDA be a positive force in the advancement of American innovation and a contributor to US competitiveness. This is precipitating an identity crisis at FDA, which the agency is working hard to resolve.

If FDA succeeds in integrating innovation into its mission, priorities and processes, then Congress will be able to see FDA (and the support it enjoys) as being essentially different than other regulatory agencies that do not have widespread public support.  This is the optimum position for FDA in its relationship with Congress.


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