Appropriators did some soul searching Tuesday before deciding to include a policy rider in the fiscal 2020 Agriculture spending bill that would bar the Food and Drug Administration from approving research that involves gene-editing of human embryos.
By voice vote, the House Appropriations Committee adopted an amendment by Rep. Robert B. Aderholt, R-Ala., to put back language that had been in the spending bill since fiscal 2016 but was omitted in the draft bill approved on May 23 by the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee.
The provision was among four amendments, including a manager’s package, the committee approved before voting 29-21 along party lines to favorably report the bill.
The measure would provide $24.3 billion in discretionary funding for programs under the Agriculture Department and Food and Drug Administration and for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. The discretionary level is $1 billion more than the enacted level for fiscal 2019. The total discretionary and mandatory funding for the draft bill is $155.3 billion, a $3.2 billion increase over the enacted level for fiscal 2019.
The Office of Management and Budget, as it has with other spending bills, sent a letter objecting to the bill’s spending level, which was set without a bipartisan, bicameral agreement on spending caps. The agency cited funding for rural development, international food aid programs and other programs in the bill as excessive.
Under the bill, the Food and Drug Administration would receive $3.26 billion in discretionary funding, more than $184 million above the fiscal 2019 enacted level. The total proposed FDA budget is $5.86 billion when fees from regulated industries are included.
The CFTC, which oversees the futures and over-the-counter derivatives markets, would receive $315 million for fiscal 2020. The agency received $268 million for fiscal 2019.
A policy rider in the bill also would prohibit the Agriculture Department using appropriated funds to move two well-regarded research-related agencies, the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, out of metropolitan Washington.
Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., said she disliked the embryo provision when it was originally added without debate because it seemed an issue best addressed by authorizing committees of jurisdiction that set policy. Lowey said the provision “amounted to a blanket denial for the FDA to review applications related to the modifications of an embryo without the merit of the individual case.”
But Lowey and Sanford D. Bishop Jr., Agriculture Appropriations chairman, said they would accept the Aderholt amendment. Bishop said he had been torn about the rider, which is why he removed it from the fiscal 2020 bill. But Bishop said after hearing from colleagues he saw the provision as a way to provide safeguards until committees of jurisdiction step in.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., said the prohibition on the FDA’s involvement in research that alters an embryo’s inheritable traits struck close to home. A breast cancer survivor, Wasserman Schultz said she carries a genetic mutation that puts her at high risk for the cancer and that she may have passed onto her three children. They won’t be tested until they are in their mid-20s.
“Obviously, it is too late for them. If we ever have an opportunity when they have children or when they decide to have a family, to have research advance to a point where you could have their genetic material when combined with their partner altered so that that mutation could be cut off in our family tree and that risk of death and massive health care implications could be eliminated, that’s incredibly important,” Wasserman Schultz said.
Jeff Fortenberry, Agriculture Appropriations ranking member, said he knows how congenital illnesses and conditions can affect a family. He has an 18-year-old daughter who was born with multiple heart defects and a bleak outlook. She has gone through 12 surgeries and “has the possibility now of living a normal life,” Fortenberry, R-Neb., said.
He credited medical advances for improving her life, but said those advances were the result of a process that married innovation with ethics.
“If we cede that type of framework of science and ethics to maverick bioengineers who are detached from larger societal considerations, the risks of harm are real,” Fortenberry said.
In addition to adopting the Aderholt embryo amendment, the committee also:
- Adopted by voice vote an amendment by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., that would bar the use of funds to finalize or implement a proposed rule allowing hog slaughtering operations to opt into an inspection system that permits increased line speeds for moving carcasses and shift some inspection responsibilities to plant employees. The freeze on action would remain until the USDA inspector general reviews the program and USDA resolves any issues the IG identifies.
- Adopted by voice vote an amendment by Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., barring the use of funds to transfer or close Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers operated by USDA’s Forest Service and barring USDA from giving another agency jurisdiction of the centers.
- Rejected by voice vote an amendment by Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., to exempt military personnel from a proposal to raise the minimum federal age restriction for tobacco sales from age 18 to 21.
- Rejected on a 23-27 vote an amendment by Aderholt to raise the minimum federal age restriction for tobacco sales from 18 to 21 and to include e-cigs, defined as electronic nicotine delivery systems. Online or other remote tobacco sales would require sellers to check a buyer’s age using commercially available databases.