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Budget Crunch Imperils Clinton 'Investments'

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Washington

Since taking office last year, the Clinton Administration has won approval of a long list of education-related initiatives, including the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, a school-to-work transition program, a community-service initiative, and a major expansion of Head Start. A measure revamping the Elementary and Secondary Education Act will come later this year.

The so-called "investment'' agenda outlined in President Clinton's proposed 1995 budget dovetails with his legislative agenda. Indeed, the Education Department was one of only a few agencies slated for an increase in the budget.

But many observers say that an unrelenting squeeze on the federal budget will make it impossible for the President to back up his rhetoric with the funding needed to make all the new programs a reality.

"Mr. Clinton's garden grows a lot of ideas, but new ideas are a dime a dozen,'' said Bruce Hunter, the senior associate executive director for external relations at the American Association of School Administrators. "He has a serious appropriations problem.''

"We have a bare-bones budget, and we're already cutting into the marrow,'' said an aide to Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees funding for the Education, Health and Human Services, and Labor departments.

"We can't pull rabbits out of a hat as people have always expected us to do,'' the aide said. "There are no corners left to cut.''

Lawmakers are operating under five-year discretionary-spending caps imposed under a 1993 deficit-reduction plan.

The Labor-H.H.S.-Education subcommittees in the House and Senate will have about $70 billion in discretionary budget authority to work with in drafting a fiscal 1995 spending bill--only $2.8 billion more than they had in 1994 and about $1.7 billion less than the President included in his budget.

A Zero-Sum Game

The problem is exacerbated by the procedural fact that the bulk of Mr. Clinton's domestic initiatives are financed by those subcommittees, pitting his "investment'' priorities directly against each other.

The President's budget proposed boosting Head Start funding from $3.3 billion to $4 billion, Goals 2000 from $105 million to $700 million, and the school-to-work program from $50 million to $150 million. Those allocations alone would eat up half the subcommittees' $2.8 billion increase--and require lawmakers to give many existing programs less than they need to simply keep up with inflation.

The situation is even tighter than it appears to be, appropriations aides said, because the President's request includes cuts that lawmakers are not likely to make.

Observers also note that the budget caps on outlays--the amount actually spent in a given fiscal year--are even tighter than the limits on budget authority, or the total spending allowed by appropriations bills. And outlays are what is "counted'' in deciding whether lawmakers have exceeded the caps.

Mr. Harkin's aide said that under a worst-case scenario, appropriators would be able to finance only 18 cents for every dollar by which the Clinton budget proposed increasing spending on programs in his panel's jurisdiction. Last year, he said, the subcommittee was able to provide about 29 cents on every new dollar the President requested.

"People still don't get it--the Administration, lobbyists, everybody,'' Mr. Harkin's aide said. "The numbers just don't add up, and something's going to have to give.''

Lobbying Strategies

Some education lobbyists said that the Administration appears not to have a coherent strategy for getting its budget proposals enacted, and they expressed frustration at what they see as a lack of leadership.

"There doesn't seem to be a real strategic, cohesive plan to protect the social-service increases,'' said Susan Frost, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding. "The Administration has a real problem in credibility here in the investments and the rhetoric.''

Both Undersecretary of Education Marshall S. Smith and William A. Galston, a deputy assistant to the President for domestic policy, disputed those charges, but declined to discuss the Administration's lobbying strategy.

An aide to Rep. Neal Smith, D-Iowa, the acting chairman of the House Labor-H.H.S.-Education appropriations subcommittee, said that appropriators had asked Education Department officials to set priorities for the proposed increases, but said that the list would not be made public.

Undersecretary Smith would neither confirm nor deny the list's existence; Sally H. Christensen, the director of the Education Department's budget service, said she did not know about any such list.

"Clearly we're going to go to bat for the same initiatives that have been at the top of the agenda all along,'' the undersecretary said, referring to new Administration programs. "But those aren't the only things we consider as really critical.''

Some lobbyists said that their strategy will be much less ambiguous. Given the choice between money for new initiatives or for existing programs, they said, they will lobby for the latter.

And they suggested that appropriators are likely to agree, as midterm elections loom and constituents expect them to deliver services they already depend on.

"We have to protect what we have and let the future take care of the new initiatives,'' said Edward R. Kealy, the director of federal programs for the National School Boards Association. "People don't miss what they don't have.''

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