A July 5 editorial about the holds placed on the nomination of Lester Crawford to head the Food and Drug Administration incorrectly said that Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) pledged to maintain their hold until the FDA approves the sale of the emergency contraceptive Plan B without a prescription. The senators say they are simply seeking a decision on nonprescription sales of Plan B, not necessarily approval, which they favor. (Published 7/7/2005)
FOR AN EXCELLENT illustration of the deadlock to which the culture wars have now brought us, look no further than the Senate's inability to confirm Lester Crawford, the president's nominee to be commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. In theory, the FDA is a regulatory institution, tasked with what ought to be the routine jobs of monitoring the food supply, making sure cosmetics are correctly labeled and deciding which drugs are safe to be sold. In practice the FDA has come to symbolize either everything that's wrong with big, slow, overprotective government or, alternatively, the insidious influence of corporate lobbyists on regulators. Now the institution finds itself at the center of the national debate about abortion and birth control as well.
Unfortunately for Mr. Crawford, and for the agency, which remains without a confirmed leader, he can't win this battle, no matter which side he takes. On the one hand, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) have placed a hold on his nomination, which prevents any Senate vote from taking place. They have said they will keep that hold in place until the FDA approves the sale of the emergency contraceptive Plan B without a prescription. They point out, correctly, that FDA advisory panels have already approved the drug's general safety; that Plan B's maker, Barr Pharmaceuticals Inc., has proposed to make the drug available only to women over age 16; that a recent study showed that availability of the drug did not alter women's sexual behavior, or lead to an increase in sexually transmitted diseases. As we have written, these are all good reasons for the FDA to make what has been a long-delayed decision and to approve the sale of Plan B without prescription.
Yet should the FDA suddenly approve nonprescription sales of Plan B, Mr. Crawford's confirmation vote will not necessarily be assured. On the contrary, one or more Republican senators may then place a hold on his nomination pending the drug's withdrawal. And in the meantime, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has also placed a hold on Mr. Crawford, demanding that the FDA require that all condoms sold in this country come with a "medically accurate" label, meaning one stating that they are not guaranteed to prevent all sexually transmitted diseases. Mr. Coburn's staffers say, fairly enough, that they are merely trying to enforce a law, passed by Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton, but the net effect is a longer delay on the nomination.
There is, or should be, a larger principle here: The FDA, whose regulations affect almost a quarter of the U.S. economy, has been without a permanent boss for almost two-thirds of President Bush's time in office. Many within the agency and outside of it say that the uncertainty created by the lack of confirmed leadership, combined with the heavy recent political interest in its regulatory decisions, has sapped confidence and led to the kinds of delays that Sens. Clinton, Murray and Coburn are protesting. We, too, would like to see the agency base its decisions as much as possible on science and not politics. But making the confirmation of the FDA boss into a contentious partisan issue is not the way to make that happen.