COMPASS: Guns and baby formula

May 16th, 2022

Good afternoon from Capitol Hill.

The House and Senate are back in session this week and the focus is on everything from Ukraine funding to baby formula. The Senate will take a cloture vote this evening on another $40 billion in supplemental funding for Ukraine. (The original request from the White House was $33 billion; Congress has plussed it up.) Senate leaders Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell attempted to expedite passage of the bill last week, only to be stymied by Sen. Rand Paul, who demanded the inclusion of an inspector general for oversight.

Paul explained his reasoning on the Senate floor:

Reserving the right to object, my oath of office is to the U.S. Constitution, not to any foreign nation. And no matter how sympathetic the cause, my oath of office is to the national security of the United States of America. We cannot save Ukraine by dooming the U.S. economy…

The cost of this package we are voting on today is more than the United States spent during the first year of the U.S. conflict in Afghanistan. Congress authorized force, and the President sent troops into the conflict. The same cannot be said of Ukraine…

Congress should evaluate the cost of continuing down this path. The biggest threat to the United States today is debt and inflation and the destruction of the dollar. We cannot save Ukraine by killing our economic strength. So I ask to modify the bill to allow for a special inspector general. This would be the inspector general who has been overseeing the waste in Afghanistan and has done a great job.

Paul’s request to include an IG for oversight was denied, and the bill will proceed under the regular order. Given the enthusiasm for funding Ukraine in the Senate (several senators just returned from a visit there over the weekend), the bill is expected to pass. Recall that supplemental funding, the kind we are sending to Ukraine, occurs outside of the limitations and rules that govern the congressional budget process.

The House, meanwhile, will vote this week on two bills purporting to address the baby formula shortage. The first will loosen restrictions on what type of formula can be purchased through the WIC (Women, Infant and Children) program, which is run by the Department of Agriculture.

A less clearly understood component of the baby formula shortage is the role the federal government plays in perpetuating it. The biggest buyer of infant formula in the U.S. is WIC, and roughly half of women buy baby formula through the program. Rather than food stamps, which provide a set amount of cash to be used for most products, most states only allow women to buy formula from one company. (Here is a longer explainer from USDA.)

Abbott Labs is the primary provider of formula for 34 states, seven Indian tribal organizations, four territories, and Washington, DC. And Abbott’s production facilities have been under a FDA-mandated shut down after a deadly bacterial outbreak was linked to their Michigan plant in February. But Abbott’s government sanctioned supply monopoly appears to be exacerbating the shortage, even more than a national shortage in supply.

As the Wall Street Journal noted last week, “The FDA said overall the nation’s infant formula manufacturers are making enough to meet demand even without Abbott’s main factoring online. The industry sold more formula in April than it did the month before the recall, the FDA said.” The first House bill purports to loosen the distribution restrictions on what type of formula can be purchased through the WIC program. But it’s clear the program needs substantial reform to avoid this happening again.

A second bill, proposed by House Appropriations chair Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) would use emergency supplemental funding to purchase formulas available from Chile, Mexico, Ireland and the Netherlands. No word on how the FDA – which makes approval of foreign formula notoriously difficult – plans to respond.

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One More Thing…

ICYMI: The country may be moving on from COVID, but Congress hasn’t. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi extended “proxy voting” for another six more weeks.