Burgeoning Budgets Put GOP in Unusual Policy Position
Riding the wave of the gop 's congressional takeover in the 1994 elections and spurred by a budget-conscious House majority, Republicans vowed to streamline education and the rest of big government, even to the point of targeting 80 programs for elimination and threatening to abolish the Department of Education.
Nearly four years after the Republican majority took office, federal education spending has not only survived, it has grown--by nearly 38 percent since the fiscal 1996 budget, into a $33.1 billion discretionary-spending package for fiscal 1999.
Next year, the GOP will maintain its majority in the new 106th Congress and keep hold of the federal purse strings. But the Education Department has more funding than ever under a political party traditionally associated with belt-tightening.
"It's been a strategic retreat on the part of the GOP," said Stephen Moore, the director of fiscal-policy studies at the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank that advocates a smaller federal role in social policy. "They even boast that they are the ones funding these gigantic increases. To fiscal conservatives, that is quite disturbing."
Education spending represents less than 10 percent of the 40-pound, 16-inch-thick, 4,000-page, $520 billion omnibus spending measure passed by Congress in October and set to finance most of the major Cabinet agencies for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
But "it was a good year for education," said Thomas P. Skelly, the Education Department's budget-service director for 20 years.
The department's discretionary spending has gone up $3 billion in each of the past two years, placing the percentage increases in the double digits, Mr. Skelly said. Budget negotiators gave the department more than it asked for in President Clinton's budget proposal for fiscal 1999, he added, and more than either chamber voted individually for it to have.
Several factors may be contributing to the rise in spending. For one, Congress this year continued a recent trend of melding individual appropriation measures into omnibus spending bills at the last minute. This fall's process was made particularly hectic by the pressure to get members back to their home states to campaign for the Nov. 3 elections. The huge bills, some say, make it easy to add individual pet projects in the 11th hour and hard to weed them out.
In addition, Mr. Skelly pointed out, this fall's high-pressure deal-making took place without the threat of the president's line-item veto, which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down earlier this year.
Some Republicans, particularly conservatives from the House freshman class of 1994, were distressed with the process. Next year, the Republican National Committee will forge ahead with its new education agenda, said Tim Fitzpatrick, the deputy press secretary of the policy-guiding arm of the party.
"We would prefer to have education spending flow back toward state and local control and out of the hands of the federal bureaucracy here in Washington," Mr. Fitzpatrick said.
Though it's a small piece of overall education funding, earmarked, or "pork barrel," spending has grown along with the overall budget, say educators, congressional aides, and Education Department officials. And while such projects are not breaking the bank, they are cited by conservatives as undermining fiscal responsibility.
"It's hard to cut anything out of the budget, no matter how absurd," Mr. Moore of the Cato Institute said. "The truth is, the Republicans have hardly gotten rid of anything, and they came in wanting to cut hundreds of programs. "
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., known for naming names when it comes to the funding dedicated to pet programs in members' states, cited 61 Department of Education earmarks totaling about $40 million in this year's House-Senate conference report on the budget.
"All the conditions were ripe for an increase in pork-barrel spending," said Scott A. Hodge, a senior fellow for tax and budget policy at Citizens for a Sound Economy, a fiscal-responsibility advocacy group. "What we have entered now is the era of surplus politics."
Mr. Hodge noted that the 1999 spending bill uses about $21 billion of fiscal 1998's estimated $70 billion budget surplus. President Clinton had vowed to save the surplus for Social Security, but later agreed to fund $20.8 billion in emergency spending. But last week, Linda Ricci, a spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Budget, could not confirm whether the emergency spending would come from the surplus.
Some education lobbyists say recent spending patterns could create policy problems.
"On one hand, I don't think anybody is complaining, but one of the concerns is that we don't diffuse support for education by picking off individual projects and constituent needs," said Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a Washington-based coalition of education groups.
The increased earmarks actually show a lack of GOP confidence in programs, said Andrew J. Rotherham, the director of the 21st Century Project for the Progressive Policy Institute, which is affiliated with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council once chaired by Mr. Clinton.
"They are starting to look at the programs as slush funds to be used for pork-barrel spending," charged Mr. Rotherham, who worked until recently as a legislative specialist with the American Association of School Administrators, based in Arlington, Va.
Within Congress, increased overall spending in the appropriations bills has not gone unnoticed.
Jay Diskey, a spokesman for Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said his committee should be deciding where to spend federal K-12 funds rather than appropriators who are traditionally charged with simply deciding how much to spend on items identified by authorizing panels.
"At the end of the day, that's not good for federal education legislation," he said. "That's poor policy."
Congressional aides working on appropriations declined to speak for the record, but acknowledged that spending has grown despite members' past vows to cut it.
John B. Forkenbrock, the executive director of the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, said most of the school districts that Mr. McCain highlighted for receiving earmarks in impact aid--which provides funding to schools where federal operations cut into the local tax base--had previously been denied money because of paperwork glitches and had simply asked members of Congress to intervene.
"It's always easy to see this kind of item as pork," said Mr. Forkenbrock, whose organization lobbies for impact aid. "They sometimes have no recourse but to go to their members."
The Green Bay, Wis., school district also made it onto the McCain list. It will receive $400,000 for after-school programming in fiscal 1999, said Daniel A. Nerad, the district's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. The 20,000-student district also received a $600,000 earmark for a classroom-technology pilot. Mr. Nerad said the schools had appealed to Rep. Jay W. Johnson, D-Wis., for help in funding an after-school program.
A lack of consensus on the federal role in education is a main reason for increased spending and earmarking, argued Bruce Hunter, the senior associate executive director for the American Association of School Administrators.
"There's no leadership position on education spending except that, in an election year, there should be more of it," Mr. Hunter said.
Vol. 18, Issue 14, Page 27