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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.

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