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Published in Print: November 20, 2002, as Congress Defers Spending Decisions to New Year

Congress Defers Spending Decisions to New Year

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The federal portion of school budgets for next year will remain a mystery for a while longer.

Back from an election break that delivered full control of Congress to Republicans, the House last week effectively put off fiscal 2003 spending decisions for many federal agencies, including the Department of Education, until at least January.

Even though the new budget year began Oct. 1, Congress still has not completed work on a long list of spending bills.

A so- called continuing resolution, approved 270-143 Nov. 13 by the House during the lame-duck session, would keep federal agencies running through Jan. 11. The Senate was expected to follow suit, marking passage of the seventh such stopgap measure this year.

The Republican gains in Congress are widely viewed as boosting President Bush's leverage in Congress, and may well ensure an Education Department budget more to his liking than to that of the Democrats. But the action in Congress last week, provided the Senate follows the House's lead, will leave people guessing for some time exactly what kind of budget to expect.

'Abdication' Seen

"A continuing resolution is not the best way to fund the government," Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Fla., the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said on the House floor the day his chamber approved the resolution. "There is no question about that, and I think most of our colleagues would agree with that. But circumstances today require us to deal with this continuing resolution."

Others were less charitable. "I for one am not going to vote for this continuing resolution, because what it really is a spectacular abdication of responsibility, which is not worthy of this body," said Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.

Both parties have spent considerable time blaming each other for the budget impasse. Whatever the reasons, spending decisions will now be made in a different political climate.

Thanks to this month's elections, Republicans added slightly to their majority in the House and wrested control of the Senate from Democrats. They will hold at least 51 seats in that chamber, possibly 52. One Democrat, Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, faces a runoff election in early December.

In the Senate wing of the Capitol last week, Republicans presented a reserved public face, but the signs of excitement were still visible, or at least audible. When Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, who in January will reclaim the title of majority leader, entered a closed-door session of the Republican caucus Nov. 13, cheers erupted that carried into an outer chamber where reporters waited to buttonhole any straggling senators.

Sen. George Allen, R- Va., elected the new chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, describing another GOP caucus meeting earlier that day, said: "You could feel the electricity. It was rejuvenating."

Many political analysts have suggested that President Bush, who campaigned hard for Republicans, now has the strongest mandate of his tenure to accomplish key political objectives.

That may well mean less money for education than Democrats would prefer. President Bush's request for the Education Department in fiscal 2003, $50.3 billion in discretionary spending, is about $3 billion below what the Senate Appropriations Committee under Democratic leadership approved last summer.

"I think it may impact on the funding levels for education," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., who serves on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. "I think that the administration has not indicated near the commitment to fully funding the No Child Left Behind Act [that] Democrats have."

Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont, the Republican-turned-Independent who temporarily delivered control of the Senate into Democratic hands when he quit the GOP in May 2001, was especially worried about this.

"The way it looks right now, it's a disaster," said Mr. Jeffords, who previously was chairman of the Senate education committee.

'We Like Choice'

Delaying a final budget until early January is unlikely to create big problems for K-12 education, since the soonest most federal aid will begin going out for fiscal 2003 is next July. However, some education lobbyists suggest that if the decision drags on much further than that, it may begin to disrupt planning for next school year.

The main exception is the $1.1 billion impact-aid program, which provides financial aid to districts whose tax bases are limited by the presence of substantial federal installations. Those districts are supposed to get all or most of their impact aid shortly after the new fiscal year begins. Under continuing resolutions, districts instead get the money in smaller increments, and those who rely heavily on impact aid may encounter cash-flow problems. ("Education Money Focus of Budget Quagmire," Oct. 9, 2002.)

Republicans last week emphasized that they want to work across the aisle to get legislation passed.

"We're going to reach out to the Democrats to make sure that they're part of the process," said Sen. Lott at a Nov. 13 press conference.

While Sen. Lott did not speak directly about any plans for education during the press conference, he expressed an affinity for "choice" in certain areas of government policy, a concept that could well be applied to education in the coming session.

"We like choice, and we like ... the private sector being involved," he said. "It's a critical part of how you do some of these things that we'll do."

Meanwhile, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the incoming chairman of the education committee, downplayed the significance of the change in power when it comes to education policy.

"I don't see a dramatic impact in that area," he said, noting the good working relationship he has with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the panel's top Democrat and current chairman.

"Senator Kennedy and I have worked very closely, for example, on No Child Left Behind," he said. "We were reasonably close to an agreement on [the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act] before this break, and I hope we can pick that up and continue it."

Vol. 22, Issue 12, Pages 19,24

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