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Some Good News, but Bad News Outweighs It

Here is another good news/bad news column about the 112th Congress.

First, the good news.

It appears that there is a rare consensus in the House and Senate around passage of legislation to reauthorize the Food and Drug Administration’s user fee programs. Sarah Kliff of the Washington Post, a top health policy reporter, rightly says this is the most important health policy bill to pass this Congress — if it does pass.

The Prescription Drug User Fee Act, signed into law in 2007, requires pharmaceutical companies to pay fees that enable the FDA to expedite new drug approvals. This bill would authorize $1.5 billion in user fees over five years and add generic drugs to the expedited approval process.

Thanks to the earlier law, the time for drug approval declined from 27 months on average to 14 months, making U.S. drug approvals faster than Canada and Europe. This is good for drug manufacturers and good for consumers. And, knock on wood, the user fee part of it won’t run afoul of the Grover Norquist tax pledge. (Oops, I probably should not have written that.)

Since this apparent consensus follows Senate approval after long and unconscionable delays of two appointees to the Federal Reserve (to be sure, done only by twinning a Republican and Democrat) and by a bipartisan Senate vote to confirm Paul Watford for a vacancy on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, we can say it has been a constructive couple of weeks in Congress.

The Watford vote may even signal a reasonable movement toward more judicial confirmations at both the district and appeals court levels, which would be a major step forward.

But then we have to turn to the dark side.

There is the continuing gridlock over the transportation bill, far more unconscionable given the deep and immediate need for infrastructure repair and jobs to get the economy back on track.

Here, the refusal of House Republicans to raise the transportation user fee, via the gas tax, to replenish the Highway Trust Fund is the culprit. Then there is the brouhaha over the Violence Against Women Act. There is the breach in the broad bipartisan agreement that arose out of the debt limit debacle last year that resulted in the Budget Control Act. That the House has decided to breach that agreement by cutting discretionary domestic spending well below the BCA’s levels and by protecting every single dime in the defense budget is extraordinary and troubling.

And more than anything else, there is the new threat to America’s credit rating raised by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), a sign of recklessness that is beyond disturbing.

As I and others have pointed out time and again, the use of the debt limit as leverage — what Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called “a hostage worth ransoming” — was unprecedented and went way beyond the game-playing and hypocrisy that has usually accompanied debt limit votes. Especially at a time of a weak economy, it threatened the economic well-being of the country, not to mention the full faith and credit of the U.S. government.

Despite the fact that we had a deal at the eleventh hour, Standard & Poor’s downgraded U.S. debt because the outrageous politics gave them little faith that Congress and the White House would get together and stabilize the debt.

Now Boehner has decided to ratify and reinforce that decision by S&P and will undoubtedly make the other ratings agencies go back and rethink their ratings. Boehner has framed his threat in terms of fiscal discipline — demanding that an increase in the debt limit has to be accompanied by comparable cuts in spending.

Of course, increasing the debt limit is simply an acknowledgement that the government is good for debts it has already incurred. But Boehner is demanding that to make that acknowledgement will require immediate and future budget cuts. That demand is farcical. The Speaker has voted for and endorsed a Ryan budget that itself increases the debt by trillions over the coming decade.

By refusing in that budget and in every other action to put any tax increases on the table, despite the fact that Simpson-Bowles, Rivlin-Domenici, the Senate “gang of six” and every other bipartisan group looking at the problem say it cannot be solved or seriously reduced in the short or medium term without sizable new revenues, Boehner is showing that his pleas for fiscal discipline are hollow.

After the Republicans won the House in the 2010 elections, Boehner showed that he was ready to lead as Speaker. He warned his colleagues about the impending need to raise the debt limit. “I’ve made it pretty clear to them that, as we get into next year, it’s pretty clear that Congress is going to have to deal with this. We’re going to have to deal with it as adults. Whether we like it or not, the federal government has obligations, and we have obligations on our part,” he said.

We no longer have an adult Speaker but a petulant one, apparently deciding that the way to lead his forces is to lead them in irresponsibility. The U.S. credit rating, credibility and economic health are going to be held hostage. That kind of negates all those good things I mentioned at the top and doesn’t suggest any reason for optimism when the big showdown hits in December.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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