Education Budget Unfinished With Deadline Nearing
The status of the federal education budget for fiscal 2000 remains a big question mark as appropriators near the Oct. 1 deadline for passing a spending bill.
Just last week, the House and Senate appropriations subcommittees with jurisdiction over education spending canceled planned "markup" hearings for their respective budget bills. As of late last week, the panels had yet to set new dates for the hearings.
Lawmakers have promised to increase spending on education, but so far are finding it hard to do so. The biggest obstacle appears to be the stated intentions of both the Republican congressional leadership and President Clinton to honor the strict budget caps negotiated in 1997, which have created a difficult situation for appropriators.
"We're living within the reality of the budget caps," said Elizabeth Morra, a spokeswoman for Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee. "That's why we're having such a tough time."
However, many observers say the question at this point is not whether the budget caps will be lifted to allow more spending, but when. On the House side, the appropriations subcommittee that handles the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education is working with a total spending figure that is about $16 billion--or 18 percent--shy of the roughly $89 billion it needs just to reach spending levels consistent with the current year's.
A difficult situation was exacerbated when lawmakers tapped into the funding originally earmarked for the subcommittee to supplement other spending bills. That action removed several billion dollars from a budget already far below what was needed to keep pace with current funding.
"The Labor- HHS bill has become the piggy bank for all the other [spending] bills," said Joel C. Packer, a lobbyist for the 2.4 million-member National Education Association and the president of the Committee for Education Funding, a coalition of K-12 and higher education groups that lobbies for increased federal education aid. He said the House leadership had made clear that its position was to "do one bill at a time ... and only worry about one bill at a time."
Appropriators are still awaiting word from the House Budget Committee on whether they might be allowed increased freedom in their discretionary spending for the Labor-HHS-Education budget, Ms. Morra said. Appropriations include both mandatory and discretionary spending.
The Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees education has also been working with a total spending figure that is far short--by about $8 billion, or 10 percent--of what would be needed to keep spending levels consistent with this year's.
Time is running short for action in both chambers before the beginning of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1. If Congress fails to finish work on the 13 spending bills that cover all aspects of the federal budget by that date, the lawmakers will have to pass a so-called continuing resolution. That stopgap measure would keep the government operating until all the bills were passed and signed into law. As of late last week, only two of the spending bills were finished, one of which the president had signed.
Budget lobbyists say there is an increasing likelihood that Congress will experience a replay of last year's budget situation, when lawmakers wrapped all the unfinished spending legislation into one omnibus appropriations bill.
Meanwhile, the education lobby has been stepping up the pressure on Congress to increase federal spending on schools. Last Friday, the Committee for Education Funding sponsored "National Contact Washington Day," on which it urged members to call or e-mail legislators and the White House to press for more aid to education. The cef is calling for at least a $5 billion rise in federal education spending for fiscal 2000, to $38.5 billion.
The CEF also joined with a similar coalition on health issues last week to send a letter to Congress urging that more money be set aside for the spending bill that includes health and education.
On another front, the House last Thursday passed a separate appropriations bill, 235-187, that would eliminate President Clinton's prized AmeriCorps program, which seeks to engage young adults in community service.
Vol. 19, Issue 2, Pages 22,28