Budget Battle May Hold High Stakes for Education

By Mark Pitsch — March 11, 1992 6 min read

  • President Bush’s proposed budget, offered by Representative Bill Gradison, Republican of Ohio. It was rejected by a vote of 42 to 370.

An upcoming battle over budgetary rules is likely to determine how well education programs fare in fiscal 1993 before a single appropriations bill is introduced--and it appears that advocates for increased domestic spending ultimately will lose.

Billions of dollars in education funding are potentially at stake in the debate, which opens this week, over whether to revamp the Budget Enforcement Act.

The 1990 agreement crafted by the White House and the Congress sets limits on defense, domestic, and international spending, and prohibits transfers among categories.

The 1993 budget resolution approved by the House last week graphically illustrates the consequences of this limitation.

It includes two contingency plans: one that would transfer part of a $15-billion “peace dividend’’ from defense cuts to domestic programs, including education, and one that would apply the savings to deficit reduction.

The first option, which calls for about $2 billion more in education spending than the other, cannot be implemented unless legislation breaking down the “fire walls’’ between spending categories is enacted.

Prominent members of the Congress and education lobbyists have been calling for that change for months, and legislation to accomplish it has drawn long lists of influential sponsors in both the House and Senate.

“This is probably the most important vote the Congress is going to make this session,” said Michael Edwards, the manager of Congressional relations for the National Education Association.

The Battle Begins

The first such vote is scheduled to take place on the House floor this week, as lawmakers consider HR 3732, sponsored by Representative John Conyers Jr., the Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the House Government Operations Committee.

“We have the makings of a substantial margin, and it’s just a matter of how well we can communicate” what will happen to domestic programs if the walls are not dissolved, an aide to Mr. Conyers said.

“If the Conyers bill doesn’t pass, there’s going to be some desperate across-the-board cuts to domestic programs,” the aide said, “from job training for displaced military workers who will be entering the workforce to elementary and secondary and higher education.”

But formidable obstacles stand in the way, chief among them President Bush’s opposition to altering the budget agreement.

Several weeks ago, Mr. Bush said he might be willing to renegotiate the pact, a message he reiterated in his January State of the Union Message.

But in recent weeks, the President has been engaged in a tougher-than-expected re-election campaign. Under pressure from the right for breaking his “no new taxes” pledge by signing off on the agreement, Mr. Bush last week called the agreement “a mistake.”

In this political climate, observers say, it is unlikely that the President will extend a hand to the Democratic Congress and sign a bill that transfers money from defense to domestic programs. The more than $7 billion in defense reductions Mr. Bush has proposed would be targeted for deficit reduction.

The President’s likely veto of a “walls bill” means that proponents would have to muster veto-proof margins of victory--a difficult endeavor because Republican votes will be needed.

And there are many members, including Democrats, who agree with the President that defense savings should be applied to deficit reduction.

At a Budget Committee mark-up of the budget resolution last month, Representative Charles W. Stenholm, Democrat of Texas, said he would encourage his conservative Democratic colleagues to reject HR 3732 and to adopt the budget-resolution scenario that assumes the walls remain standing.

A High Hurdle

“The question is not whether [a walls bill] can pass the House and the Senate, the question is whether it can become law,” said an aide to Representative William H. Natcher, the Kentucky Democrat who chairs the House Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee.

“The thing about the Budget Enforcement Act is it’s not an agreement, it’s not a resolution, it’s not a shake of hands; it’s a statute, and it gives the President considerable power,” the aide said.

Another potential stumbling block is time. Under the House budget resolution, H Con Res 287, the plan that assumes the walls are left intact, prevails if a walls bill does not become law by the time a House-Senate budget conference convenes.

That means positive action on a walls bill must come quickly so as not to derail the budget process in the election-shortened legislative year.

S 2250, a counterpart to Mr. Conyers’s bill sponsored by Senator Jim Sasser, the Tennessee Democrat who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, is expected to go to the floor soon after the House votes on HR 3732, which means late this week or the following week. The Senate Budget Committee will then begin formulating its budget resolution.

Observers agree that domestic programs will be squeezed if the budgetary walls remain standing.

About $206 billion is available under the domestic-spending cap for fiscal 1993, compared with about $203 billion in fiscal 1992. At less than 2 percent, the increase is below what is needed even to keep pace with inflation.

And the Congress complicated matters by including billions of dollars of “delayed’’ spending in last year’s appropriations bills--more than $4 billion in the social-services spending bill alone--that will have to be accounted for under the 1993 caps.

A Tight Squeeze

Without a transfer from the defense side of the wall, lobbyists for such domestic programs as education, health, labor, urban renewal, and housing will have to compete for fiscal 1993 domestic spending dollars.

Last year, even lesser restrictions resulted in a fight between advocates of education and health spending when House and Senate members met to reconcile social-spending bills.

“The current process is designed to pit program against program,” Mr. Edwards of the N.E.A. said.

Education programs will likely fare better than other domestic programs under such a scenario, as they did last year.

President Bush proposed a $1.7-billion discretionary-spending increase for education programs in his budget, much higher than for other domestic programs.

And, signaling that the Congress is not likely to fund education at a level below the President, the House budget resolution matches the President’s education increase of $1.7 billion even if the walls remain.

Moreover, education has long been a funding priority for Mr. Natcher.

Before approving H Con Res 287--by votes of 215 to 201 for option one and 224 to 191 for option two--the House rejected three amendments:

  • A proposal by Representative William E. Dannemeyer, Republican of California, to freeze domestic spending for fiscal 1993 at fiscal 1992 levels, which failed by a vote of 60 to 344.
  • President Bush’s proposed budget, offered by Representative Bill Gradison, Republican of Ohio. It was rejected by a vote of 42 to 370.
  • The Congressional Black Caucus proposal, which would have provided $4.1 billion more for education programs than was allocated in fiscal 1992. The amendment failed by a vote of 77 to 342.

A version of this article appeared in the March 11, 1992 edition of Education Week as Budget Battle May Hold High Stakes for Education