Lack of Progress Could Imperil Voc.-Ed Bill
Despite initial optimism that a quick compromise could be reached on a bill to consolidate federal job-training and vocational-education efforts, the first meeting of House and Senate negotiators last week bogged down in partisan bickering that could doom the bill's chances in this congressional session.
"I look forward to wrapping this up as quickly as possible," said Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum, R-Kan., the chairwoman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, when conferees met May 21 to begin reconciling differences between House and Senate plans to consolidate scores of programs into block grants.
But after two short meetings that were interrupted by floor votes on other issues, the conferees had yet to even agree on whether to set specific authorized funding levels in the bill. Congress adjourned for the Memorial Day holiday immediately after the conference committee's second session.
Noting that the House had recently passed a budget resolution that calls for cutting $882 million from current spending on the category of programs that includes education and training, some argued for not specifying an authorized appropriations level. Others argued equally vehemently for writing a specific authorization level into the legislation.
The Senate bill calls for a $6.6 billion authorization level, while the House bill would authorize roughly $1 billion less.
Both HR 1617 and S 143, which passed the House and Senate, respectively, by overwhelming margins, are designed to permit "one-stop shopping" for vocational education and job training. But there are key differences.
The Senate bill would bundle federal programs for vocational education, job training, adult education, and at-risk youths into one block grant. The House bill would create three separate grants. (See Education Week, Jan. 31, 1996.)
Other troublesome issues are whether the measure should require states to distribute job-training funds through a system of vouchers, an attempt by Republicans to effectively repeal the Clinton administration's school-to-work program by folding it into the bill, and whether to require mandatory drug testing of job-training participants. Conferees also were at odds over whether to maintain as a separately funded item programs for youths deemed at risk of dropping out of school.
"The bills are completely different," concluded Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., who has been anxious to get a compromise measure to the floor, "and that's the big problem that we're dealing with."
Mr. Goodling, the chairman of the House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee, said that he was "very disappointed" that more than 170 hours of staff negotiations had not produced a workable compromise.
Agreement was made more difficult by months of lobbying by conservative groups, which has turned some lawmakers against the legislation, spurring them to draw out each debate in an apparent effort to kill it. Critics fear that the measure would require all students to participate in vocational training or even create a central vocational-planning system like that used in the former Soviet Union. (See Education Week, April 17, 1996.)
Some observers also noted that some Republicans might be reluctant to pass a compromise bill in a presidential-election year.
President Clinton favors restructuring the job-training system. But in a letter to conferees, he threatened to veto the final bill unless it includes certain provisions, such as adequate authorization levels, a funding set-aside for dislocated workers, and his proposal to give workers "skill grants" for retraining, which would be connected to the Pell Grant college-aid program.
Rep. William Clay of Missouri, the ranking Democrat on the House panel, lamented what he called the breakdown of bipartisanship. "I realize you have the votes to prevail in this conference," he said to Sen. Kassebaum. "But when you say that you're keeping us informed, I hope you're not implying that you're addressing our concerns."
He asked Ms. Kassebaum to delay the conference until after Memorial Day to give aides time to analyze the proposals drafted during staff-level negotiations.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the Senate panel, persuaded conferees to at least begin discussing the most contentious points. But by week's end, little progress had been made toward even that modest goal.
Ms. Kassebaum, however, struck a final, hopeful note.
"I think most of us here really want to see a bill passed," she said. "So I hope that when we come back from the recess, we can re-dedicate ourselves to doing that."