FDA Matters Blog
Register to get regular updates from FDA Matters FDA Matters Home

After Kennedy, Who Will Lead the Senate HELP Committee?

We mourn the passing of Senator Kennedy. He had something others admire, but can rarely duplicate. He was–often simultaneously—a formidable ideologue and the first to create a bipartisan bridge over troubled Senate waters. The health reform debate has suffered greatly from the absence of his commanding personality and his sense of how to make a deal (and make it stick).

Sadly, we are already involved in the game of guessing who will be the new chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension (HELP) Committee. I have also started to think about the possible impact on the FDA.

No one knows who will be the new chairman, despite a lot of instant analysis. Seniority on the committee is fixed, but every potential successor would have to give up something important.

Senator Chris Dodd has “right of first refusal” and has enjoyed his role leading the HELP committee on health care reform. He would certainly want to be chairman, except he would have to give up his chairmanship of the Senate Banking Committee, of obvious importance to his home state of Connecticut. Facing a very rough re-election campaign, commentators have been divided over whether he benefits from leaving the Banking committee and distancing himself from the near-collapse of the financial industries…or whether he should stay chairman and be the leader on re-regulating them.

Senator Tom Harkin is next in seniority. To take over HELP, he would have to give up the chairmanship of the Senate Agriculture Committee, of obvious importance to his home state of Iowa. He already heads the Appropriations subcommittee responsible for much of the labor and health care programs within the HELP jurisdiction. To have both positions would be incredibly powerful. Some commentators have said that Harkin isn’t interested, but the better view is that he will need to assess the political consequences of changing chairmanships.

If Dodd and Harkin say “no,” Senator Barbara Mikulski (MD) is next in line. She is also the most senior member of the Democratic Caucus who is not a full committee chair. It is widely assumed that she would happily take over the HELP committee. I think this is right, but at least one commentator has suggested that this might make it more difficult for her to eventually chair the appropriations committee, where she is fifth in seniority.

If this goes past Senator Mikulski, the next most senior member would be Senator Jeff Bingaman (NM), who would have to give up his chairmanship of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. There are other Senators on the list after that, but the Majority Leader, Senator Harry Reid (NV), might step in first to assure leadership positions for more senior members within the Senate.

Not being discussed at all by commentators is a brokered deal for interim leadership. The chairmanship would then be decided in the next Congress (January 2011).

None of these potential chairs present any problems for FDA. They would all be expected to support the agency. That said, priorities for FDA will eventually change with new leadership of the HELP committee. Before that occurs, the new chair will have to evolve out of Senator Kennedy’s enormous shadow and into their own agenda and style. That will happen, but slowly.


Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

© 2009-2012 by HPS Group. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted to those wishing to quote or reprint from this site, providing it is properly attributed to FDA Matters: The Grossman FDA Report™.