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Budget Plans Put Issues of Process,Politics on Table

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Congressional budget resolutions--technical documents that lay out blueprints for federal spending on large categories of programs--are usually of great interest mainly for Washington number-crunchers.

But budget parlance has a higher profile this year than usual, thanks to sweeping spending cuts and government reforms sought in G.O.P. fiscal plans that could touch every corner of the country en route to balancing the federal budget by 2002.

The 1996 budget plan endorsed by the House last week calls, for example, for killing more than 100 education programs and abolishing the federal Education Department. Both the House and Senate G.O.P. plans also propose politically sensitive restraints on spending in the Medicare health-insurance program for the elderly.

Some key points have been lost in much of the discussion of the budget plans, however.

First, none of the cuts or spending restraints recommended by the budget committees would be binding--they are simply examples of how lower spending levels could be reached. It is the more general limits the resolutions set on spending that will drive the ultimate decisions, which will be made by appropriations committees as they enact bills setting out allocations for specific programs.

Nonetheless, education groups note the importance of the budget documents as statements of political purpose.

"None of this is a done deal, but its impact is powerful," said Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a lobbying group representing some 100 organizations. "It goes for the jugular and says let's forget about the school reform of the former Congress."

In some respects, education lobbyists here say, the less detailed Senate plan may be more politically problematic for them.

"In some ways it is more dangerous because people assume education is not as targeted by cuts," Mr. Kealy said, "but it's still at risk because of overall reductions."

In addition, critics say the G.O.P. plans underestimate the full impact of the spending restraints they propose.

Dueling Assumptions

For example, the Senate Budget Committee plan would reduce spending on the category that includes education, training, and social services by $10 billion in its first year, and then essentially freeze spending at that level for the following six years, for a total reduction of $66.9 billion. But when compared with the amount needed to maintain current services, accounting for 3 percent annual inflation, opponents say the reductions are closer to $90 billion--or a 30 percent cut.

"Freezing programs over an extended period of years while prices continue to rise requires reducing the services provided by the programs," the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal Washington think tank, argued in a statement.

But not everyone shares that point of view. Indeed, Republicans and their supporters take exception to opponents' practice of calling a freeze on spending--or even an increase below the inflation rate--a spending cut.

"I think they [critics of the G.O.P. plans] are playing head games with the American public," said Allyson M. Tucker, who until last week was the manager of the Center for Educational Law and Policy at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank here. She argued that it is wrong to assume that all programs should grow at the inflation rate, which she also pointed out is hard to predict.

While sparks fly over the numbers, others are scratching their heads over the implications of the House budget plan's call for eliminating the Education Department--a prominent example of several major proposals in the budget blueprints that cannot be implemented strictly through the budget process.

Some Republican aides acknowledge that abolishing an agency is a monumental job procedurally.

To Abolish an Agency

"The procedure exists, but it's not easy and would be hotly contested," said Doug Nick, a spokesman for Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., who led the Budget Committee task force that recommended the Education Department's elimination. "But you're talking about a huge bureaucracy that may or may not be effective."

An official of the House parliamentarian's office said that any legislation that would erase the department would likely be considered by both the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee--which created the department in 1979--and the Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee, which oversees most school programs.

It would be a long process, and G.O.P. aides concede that the debate might not work in Republicans' political favor. They said that recent opinion polls suggesting that most Americans support some federal role in education have been noticed on Capitol Hill.

And their opponents are quick to emphasize the risk to the G.O.P.

"When you say get rid of the Education Department, essentially you're saying education is at the bottom of your priorities," said Braden Goetz, the legislative counsel to Rep. Major R. Owens, D-N.Y., a member of both the opportunities committee and the government-oversight panel.

In any case, it appears unlikely that appropriators will base their spending decisions on the possibility that other committees will act to eliminate the department. And aides noted that the appropriations panels can simply choose not to fund some of the agency's programs.

"Congressman Porter will look at programs," said David Kohn, a spokesman for Rep. John Edward Porter, R-Ill., the chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. "His first priority will be to look at what is crucial, and what is desirable but not essential."

The Battle Begins

With House passage of a budget resolution last week, the next step is a vote on the Senate floor. Debate began there last week and a vote is expected this week. Once both chambers' resolutions pass, a conference committee will hammer out a compromise that must be ratified by both houses, probably next month. Unlike most legislation, the budget resolution is an internal Congressional document and does not require the President's signature.

In many ways, the real battle will begin when appropriations and authorizing committees start figuring out how they will meet the new spending limits set by the resolution.

For example, it is estimated that the House subcommittee that dictates most of the spending for education could see its fiscal 1995 allocation of $70 billion for discretionary programs fall to around $60 billion, according to Democratic aides. Republican aides did not want to offer estimates, but acknowledged that money will be scarce.

"It's clear that this will be a very tight, difficult budgetary year," Mr. Kohn said. "There will be downward pressure on all programs."

Authorizing committees will also get "reconciliation instructions" in the budget resolution, telling them how much savings they must come up with by adjusting current laws. Such tinkering generally consists of altering eligibility rules for entitlement programs, whose spending cannot otherwise be cut because Congress is obligated under law to provide enough money to cover everyone who is eligible.

This is where proposed cuts in interest subsidies for college loans will come up. Observers expect heated debate over that proposal in the education committees.

"There were no surprises in the budget, but that's not to say there was 100 percent agreement on everything," said a G.O.P. aide.

Many Steps Remain

Individual spending bills probably will not be voted on by the House and Senate until late summer. Conference committees, which will iron out differences between the chambers, would likely finish their work early in the fall.

But school groups are already launching efforts to fight the proposed cuts in education programs.

"We're mobilizing our members to let Congress know in no uncertain terms that we will fight this proposed package of cuts every step of the way," Kathryn Whitfill, the president of the National PTA, said in a written statement.

The process will likely wind up in negotiations between Congressional leaders and the White House, as President Clinton could veto some of the spending bills. He has been highly critical of the budget panels' proposed cuts in education, which single out many of his Administration's programs.

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