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Posted at 06:00 AM ET, 05/21/2012

Barney Frank needs a vacation (and what else is going on this week in Congress)


Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). (Jonathan Ernst - GETTY IMAGES)
Historically, the House and Senate take their Memorial Day recess around the same time, but this year they’re keeping different schedules. The Senate is in Washington this week, and lawmakers from the House are on break. Next week the House returns to Capitol Hill, and the Senate plans to take a week-long hiatus.

Retiring Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), a characteristically dour figure, seems especially in need of a few days away from the office. Frank said Sunday that Congress is “much worse” than when he was first elected more than two decades ago. Not surprisingly, he blamed his growing discontent on Republicans.

“I believe that the results of the election of 2010 were to put people in charge of the House of Representatives who are the most extreme, rigidly ideological group to control one of the major political parties since the Democrats in the South before the Civil War,” Frank said on C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers.”

Frank said the legislative process has ground to a virtual halt in the House because of tea party-aligned Republicans and in the Senate because of the filibuster.

Using his characteristically bombastic tone, Frank said “I am afraid that one of these days, there’s a fire that’s gonna break out in the Senate and they’re gonna suffocate from the smoke because they won’t get 60 votes to adjourn. The degree to which that Senate filibuster has locked them down, that’s very debilitating.”

Frank will leave the House behind when he retires at the end of his current term.

This week in the Senate

Speaking of filibusters, the Senate will attempt to avoid at least two of them this week. On Monday, senators are scheduled for a final vote on the nomination of Paul J. Watford to serve on the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Later, debate is slated to resume on a bill reauthorizing billions of dollars in fees paid by drug manufacturers to the Food and Drug Administration to expedite the review of potential products. The Food and Drug Safety and Innovation Act could, in the words of The Post’s Sarah Kliff, “play a big part in determining the safety of drugs in the United States, as well as how quickly we get access to them.” (Sarah, who tracks health-care policy like nobody else at The Post, has a fantastic explainer on the law that is worth your time.)

At issue is a law established in the 1990s that requires pharmaceutical firms to pay user fees to the FDA to help expedite the review process. Since the fee system was established, the Government Accountability Office has found that the FDA increased its reviewer staff by 77 percent and drug approval times dropped by almost a year and a half over the first eight years of the law. Notably, just as the Senate began reviewing the law, researchers reported in the New England Journal of Medicine that the FDA approved more new medicines in less time than its European and Canadian agencies in the last decade, a study refuting long-standing criticisms that the agency’s review process lags behind its international peers.

The fees, which would be reauthorized for another five years, generate a considerable portion of the agency’s revenues and would for the first time apply to generic drug manufacturers. Another critical change would require pharmaceutical companies to notify the FDA of impending slowdowns in drug production, in order to address growing concerns with drug shortages around the world.

There is bipartisan support for the measure in both chambers. The House passed its version of the bill two weeks ago, and the Senate is expected to approve the bill with bipartisan support.

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Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

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By  |  06:00 AM ET, 05/21/2012

 
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