Published Online: October 19, 2007
Published in Print: October 24, 2007, as Bush, Democrats Face Education Spending Showdown

Bush, Democrats Face Education Spending Showdown

White House says bill costs too much but fails to fully fund initiatives.

President Bush and Democratic leaders in Congress are facing off over spending on federal education programs, and the renewal of the No Child Left Behind Act could get caught up in the clash.

The administration has threatened a presidential veto of a number of appropriations bills, including the spending measure that covers the Department of Education, because they contain more money than Mr. Bush requested for fiscal 2008.

The president proposed $56 billion in discretionary spending on Education Department programs, a 2.6 percent decrease over fiscal 2007. In July, the House approved $62 billion for the department, a 7.8 percent increase over fiscal 2007. The Senate Appropriations Committee has proposed $60 billion for the department, a 4.3 percent increase over fiscal 2007.

The full Senate began consideration last week of the spending bill for the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and the measure was expected to pass.

But the bill’s future remains uncertain. President Bush said Congress’ proposals would exacerbate the budget deficit.

“One of the hardest things in Washington, D.C., to do that small businesses have to do all the time is set priorities,” the president said in an Oct. 15 speech in Rogers, Ark. “Every program sounds like a great program, but without setting priorities the temptation is to overspend.”

“And so you’re fixing to see what they call a fiscal showdown in Washington,” Mr. Bush added. “The Congress gets to propose, and if it doesn’t meet needs, as far I’m concerned, I get to veto. And that’s precisely what I intend to do.”

Although the president’s comments dealt with federal spending generally, the Labor-HHS-Education bill is expected to be a focal point in the tussle over the annual appropriations process.

Congress’ budget resolution for total fiscal 2008 federal discretionary spending is $22 billion above the president’s request, according to an Oct. 17 statement from the White House Office of Management and Budget. The House version of the Labor-HHS-Education bill accounts for nearly half that amount. It is $11 billion over the president’s request, including an additional $6 billion for the Education Department. The Senate’s measure is nearly $9 billion more than the president’s request, including an additional $4 billion for the department.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Labor-HHS-Education subcommittee, noted on Oct. 17 that the bill garnered broad, bipartisan support in the Senate Appropriations Committee. For the past five years, when the Republicans were in control of Congress, and Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., was chairman of the subcommittee, the Labor-HHS-Education bills always exceeded the administration’s budget request, he said.

“The president never once threatened to veto one of those bills and never did, even though we exceeded his budget,” Mr. Harkin said on the Senate floor. “What is the difference? Because the Congress changed hands? I don’t think Senator Specter or I give a hoot about that. What we care about is investing in education and health, job training, biomedical research, all the other good things this bill does.”

Lost Opportunity

The 2008 fiscal year began Oct. 1. Congress has passed a measure that continued to finance most federal programs at fiscal 2007 levels until mid-November.

If President Bush follows through on his threat, Democrats in Congress would likely attempt to override a veto of the Labor-HHS-Education bill, but most observers say it doesn’t appear that congressional leaders would have the necessary two-thirds majority.

The House approved the Labor-HHS-Education spending bill by a vote of 276-140 on July 19. More than 140 GOP lawmakers signed a letter, sent to President Bush in May, pledging to support any presidential vetoes on spending bills.

Still, a handful of those Republicans then voted for the education spending bill, so it may be difficult to predict how many lawmakers would agree to sustain a veto, said Heather Rieman, an education policy analyst at the New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank.

If Congress could not override a veto, the administration and congressional leaders would have to work out a compromise on spending—or agree to continue financing education programs at fiscal 2007 spending levels through the rest of the 2008 fiscal year.

Either of those options would almost certainly mean less money for education programs than is proposed in either the House or Senate spending bills, said Steve Nousen, a lobbyist for the 3.2 million-member National Education Association.

When the Democrats took over Congress after the 2006 elections, education advocates saw “an opportunity to reverse the trend” in education funding, he said.

“There’s a big hole to dig out of in terms of funding programs at levels that are adequate, and you can’t do it in one year, but we need to try to move forward on these programs as quickly as possible,” Mr. Nousen said. “If the president’s veto is sustained and we fund programs at the president’s level, it will be a major setback.”

In contrast to concerns about too much spending in some areas, the administration says some programs aren’t getting enough.

Such programs include the Teacher Incentive Fund, which allocates grants to districts to develop performance-based pay programs. The president asked Congress for $199 million for the fund in fiscal 2008; both the House and Senate bills would finance it at just $99 million.

And the administration is concerned about the Senate bill’s proposal to slash spending on Reading First state grants to $800 million, from $1 billion in fiscal 2007. The House bill’s proposed cut is even sharper, trimming the program to $353 million.

A series of reports by the Education Department’s inspector general essentially supported complaints that federal officials appeared to favor the use of some commercial programs, and discouraged others, during the implementation of Reading First. ("Scathing Report Casts Cloud Over ‘Reading First’," Oct. 4, 2006.)

Implications for NCLB

The OMB said in its statement last week that the Education Department has addressed the problems identified in the IG’s reports, and that the program has shown “outstanding results … particularly among at-risk students.”

The OMB’s Oct. 17 statement said the administration is also “extremely disappointed” that the Senate measure fails to fund the $250 million Promise Scholarships, which would offer money to help poor students in struggling schools pay for private schools, and the $50 million Opportunity Scholarships, which would assist districts in expanding school choice options.

But the administration commended the Senate bill for its proposed 8.6 percent increase in funding for Title I grants to districts to $13.9 billion, the level proposed in the president’s request. The administration had wanted the additional funds to be used specifically for high school improvement, but the bill doesn’t target the money to high schools.

A presidential veto could complicate negotiations in Congress over the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act. The K-12 education law passed with large, bipartisan majorities in 2001, in part because President Bush pledged to significantly increase education spending in exchange for increased federal accountability requirements on schools. But Democrats have long maintained that the president has failed to live up to that promise.

If Mr. Bush refuses to sign a bill that hikes spending on the Title I for disadvantaged students and other major education programs, “it would further demonstrate that the president is not willing to be a serious partner with the Congress in crafting successful education policy,” said Tom Kiley, a spokesman for Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.

Vol. 27, Issue 09, Pages 24-25

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