Head of Key Panel Balks at Bush's Budget Requests
Washington--The chairman of a key House committee warned the Education Department's acting chief last week that the Bush Administration's fiscal 1992 budget request for education may not clear his panel because the plan would channel substantial sums to programs that are still on the drawing board.
At a hearing before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, the chairman, Representative William H. Natcher, Democrat of Kentucky, expressed concern that the plan assumes that the Congress will approve the Administration's legislative proposals on education.
Mr. Natcher, who has traditionally refused to approve funding for programs that have not yet been authorized through legislation, told Acting Secretary of Education Ted Sanders that the inititiatives "may have no chance of passing by Oct. 1," the start of the 1992 fiscal year.
An aide to Mr. Natcher said the chairman's message to Secretary-Designate Lamar Alexander was, "If you're going to be a player in '92, you have to tell us" how to develop a budget under current law.
Mr. Natcher expressed disappointment that $690 million of the $775-million increase for discretionary programs sought by the Administration was earmarked for the President's proposed "educational excellence act," which includes $200 million to promote school choice.
He asked Mr. Sanders if he thought the Secretary-Designate would revise the budget plan to in4clude funding only for programs that are currently authorized.
"I think he would be willing to do that," Mr. Sanders replied.
But Etta Fielek, a department spokesman, said in a subsequent interview that Mr. Sanders's response should not be considered a retreat from the President's choice proposal or from his plan to direct student-financial aid to the most disadvantaged students and force middle-class students to rely more on loans.
"If there was any subtlety in Natcher's question, it was lost on us," Ms. Fielek said. "We are not going to submit anything additional to the subcommittee."
"We will work with [the subcommittee] to finalize budget numbers in the event new programs are not authorized," Ms. Fielek said, adding that Mr. Alexander will be influential in budget matters after his confirmation.
Last week's hearing was the first on the proposed 1992 budget for the Education Department.
Mr. Sanders spent most of his time defending the Administra8tion's spending plan, saying that it would help the nation achieve the education goals set by Mr. Bush and the nation's governors.
"While states and localities must lead the way in education reform, the federal government can encourage and help speed this transformation," he said. "This is the premise on which the President's 1992 education budget is based."
Under the plan, Mr. Sanders said, about $1.1 billion would be transferred from "low priority" programs--such as category "b" impact aid for children whose parents live or work on federal property and the Perkins student-loan program--to "high priority" programs that target the most disadvantaged students and get to the heart of the nation's education problems.
"[The budget] does recognize the importance of many of the existing federal programs and the role that they can play," Mr. Sanders said, citing the Chapter 1 remedial education program and aid for special education. "But it also recognizes that if we are going to be really successful in producing dramatic responses we're going to have to leverage what's going on with the expenditures of other programs in the Education Department."
Several members of the Democratic-controlled panel disagreed.
"Your fiscal 1992 budget is disappointing," Mr. Natcher said.
"You've been in education too long to believe in this kind of a budget and we're going to bring you a good one," he told Mr. Sanders.
Other members questioned the Administration's commitment to programs aimed at minority and disadel10lvantaged children and middle-class students who hope to attend college.
"I've been sitting here ... for 18 years listening to people tell me what we're going to do for minorities," said Representative Joseph D. Early, Democrat of Massachusetts. "I'll tell you what we're going to do--nothing."
Mr. Sanders responded that "within the constraints that we were operating under, this budget was the very best proposal we could put forward."
The Acting Secretary also noted, in response to a question posed by Mr. Natcher, that the department originally had sought $24.2 billion for discretionary programs for fiscal 1992. The Office of Management and Budget, however, reduced that figure to $21.8 billion.
In addition to Mr. Sanders, the subcommittee last week heard testimony from Christopher T. Cross, the assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, and from John T. MacDonald, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.
Meanwhile, Representative William D. Ford, Democrat of Michigan and chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, last week called on the Congress to increase education and related spending by $4.4 billion in fiscal 1992.
Mr. Ford's "homefront budget initiative" includes an additional $3.1 billion for such education programs as student-financial aid, math and science education, and Chapter 1. Mr. Ford also proposed more funding for Head Start, child care, and the Job Training Partnership Act program.