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Congress Wraps Up Work on 1990 Education Budget

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Washington--In a session that stretched into the wee hours of Nov. 22, the Congress approved a budget-reconciliation package that would restore most of the automatic cuts made last month under the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-reduction law.

Also last week, the Congress cleared and President Bush signed a final version of HR 3566, an appropriations bill that provides the Education Department with $24.15 billion for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. Other bills will provide the department with an additional $257 million for Indian-education and drug-education programs.

The $24.4-billion education budget, however, will be reduced somewhat under the sequester provisions of the the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law. Those provisions would remain in effect through the first week of February under the budget-reconciliation agreement, HR 3299.

The House passed the reconciliation bill by a vote of 272 to 128, and the Senate approved it on a voice vote.

President Bush had threatened to veto a bill that did not leave intact the automatic spending cuts that were forced by the deficit-reduction law. Administration officials, however, helped negotiate the compromise measure, and the President is expected to sign it.

The Education Department would have lost about $1 billion, and subsidies for the Stafford Student4Loan program would have been reduced if the automatic budget cuts had remained in full effect.

Congressional aides estimated that the partial budget cuts included in the compromise measure would trim spending by 1.4 percent for all education programs except Stafford Loans and vocational-rehabilitation grants, which are entitlements, paring about $300 million to $350 million from the e.d. budget. The loan-subsidy reduction would also remain in effect for several months.

Funding for the Chapter 1 compensatory-education program, for example, would have been slashed by about $210 million under a full sequester. The reconciliation bill, in contrast, would shave only $60 million from the $4.5 billion allotted for the program under the appropriations bill.

Full Effect Unknown

Aides and lobbyists added, however, that the impact of the compromise measure on other programs will not be known until official budget figures are released, probably this week.

They noted that the sequester process treats some programs differently than others, that the Office of Management and Budget has some leeway in applying the process, and that a partial sequester has never been implemented before, making it impossible to assess definitively the effects on specific programs.

Some protection is provided for programs whose funding would be cut below the "baseline" of 1989 spending levels adjusted for inflation, but some programs could still end up with less to spend than in 1989.

Lobbyists Disappointed

Education lobbyists, who were delighted with the $1.7-billion funding hike that appropriators sought for education, were disappointed with the final result.

Susan Frost, executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, acknowledged that the Education Department would still receive an increase of about $1.4 billion over last year's spending level. But, she added, "at the same time there will be 100,000 children who would have received Chapter 1 services under the appropriations bill who won't have them because of this abdication of responsibility."

In a letter sent to every member of the Congress last week, the c.e.f. contended that a partial sequester would eliminate Pell Grants forel10l30,000 college students and "deprive" 6,500 preschoolers of services under the Head Start program. The organization's letter unsuccessfully urged lawmakers to vote against the reconciliation bill and to return in December to consider "a better range of choices."

Ms. Frost said the decision to keep the automatic budget cuts partially intact will set a precedent, providing lawmakers a "third option" when they cannot agree on a reconciliation package but do not want to accept the full impact of Gramm-Rudman cuts.

"What the disaster is, first and foremost, is that they have set a very dangerous precedent that when they can't meet deficit targets through the reconciliation process, they shift to the appropriations accounts and cut those," Ms. Frost said.

"I think if Congress had to make a decision and vote on these cuts in education programs, they never would have done it," she said. "The problem is that they have shifted everything to this mindless process."

The spending cuts retained in the reconciliation bill would trim the federal budget by only $4.6 billion, far short of the $14.7-billion cut called for under the Gramm-Rudman law. Most of the remaining budget savings would come from a potpourri of legislative changes, tax adjustments, and bookkeeping maneuvers. Some of the savings would come from student-aid programs. (See Education Week, Nov. 22, 1989.)

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