Bush Budget Plan Has Congress Searching for ‘the Bottom Line’

By Julie A. Miller — February 22, 1989 8 min read

Washington--A week of analysis and rhetoric has done little to clarify just how much education spending President Bush proposed when he unveiled his fiscal 1990 budget revisions on Feb. 9.

“It’s a great exercise in fakery. It highlights a bunch of ideas, but there’s no bottom line,” a Democratic Congressional aide said. “If you asked [Secretary of Education] Lauro Cavazos what the Administration wanted for education in 1990, he couldn’t give you a straight answer.”

The Bush proposal laid out a series of new education programs that would cost a total of $441 million.

It also proposed to pay for these and other new initiatives by reducing growth in the defense budget and freezing 1990 outlays in a “vast array” of domestic programs at the 1989 level of $136 billion.

But the President did not specify which programs he proposed to cut in order to meet that target, a tactic that was denounced last week by House and Senate Democrats.

“This is a thousand points of light, but the batteries have not been included at this point,” Senator Jim Sasser, Democrat of Tennessee and chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said at a news conference.

“Despite the rhetoric, there are no overall education increases here, and there may be cuts,” added Representative Leon Panetta, Democrat of California and chairman of the House Budget Committee. “The new programs called for by the President are to be paid for by reductions in other education programs.”

“Bush talked about his new ideas, but left it to us to do the dirty work,” commented a Democratic budget aide. “It’s conveniently vague about things that are hard to defend.”

The night Mr. Bush’s plan was unveiled, Education Department officials said the $441 million in new education initiatives was to be added to the $21.9 billion that President Reagan had requested for the department.

They said at that point that the Reagan proposals were still valid, a position they essentially maintained last week.

But an Office of Management and Budget spokesman said last week that spending levels for all domestic programs other than Mr. Bush’s new initiatives were “negotiable.” Mr. Bush might seek higher or lower levels for individual education programs than those proposed by Mr. Reagan in negotiations with the Congress, she said.

The ‘Black Box’

That would seem to put education programs in the $136-billion pot that Mr. Sasser, the Senate budget chairman, termed the “black box.”

“The Administration will negotiate with the Congress on the budget as a whole, including this freeze category, and many of our discretionary programs are in that pool,” Charles E.M. Kolb, deputy undersecretary for planning, budget, and evaluation, said last week.

But he also said that “pending the outcome of the negotiations with Congress, we are treating the Reagan proposals as if they are Bush proposals,” seeming to imply that the Administration’s position might be firmer than it appears.

“Secretary Cavazos worked with omb in preparing the Reagan proposals and it is our hope that many of them will appear in the final budget,” Mr. Kolb said. “The President has made many statements on the priority he has attached to education; he has been clear on this.”

Some Congressional aides said they had reason to believe that the Bush Administration would stand by the Reagan proposals. Some education advocates agreed, citing a page in the Bush document on which Education Department spending is listed as a “priority"--next to a 1990 budget total similar to the total of Mr. Reagan’s budget for the department.

But other observers were less sure. And they said that if Mr. Bush does intend to put education programs in the “black box,” they would be in jeopardy.

“We don’t know up front what [Mr. Bush] plans to protect, and that doesn’t place education in any better position than transportation programs or water programs,” said one Senate budget aide.

Freeze Could Chill Funding

The programs under the $136-billion cap would have to be cut by between $9.6 billion and $11.2 billion from the amount that would be needed to continue 1989 service levels, depending on whose figures are used.

If all these programs were cut equally, a reduction of 6 percent to 11 percent from 1989 appropriations would be necessary, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Education programs could be hurt more than others under that scenario, because the President has apparently proposed freezing domestic outlays--the amount of money to actually be spent in 1990--rather than budget authority, which is the amount of spending authorized in a given year.

This approach would have a particularly powerful impact on education programs, because most are “forward funded,” meaning that money appropriated for one fiscal year is not spent until the following year.

Freezing budget authority for 1990 would allow both money appropriated in 1989 and some new appropriations to be spent in 1990, causing outlays to rise.

Holding 1990 outlays to 1989 levels would mean rescinding some of the 1989 appropriations or making enormous cuts in 1990 budget authority--as much as 50 percent for some programs, according to appropriations aides.

“This is not only a freeze, but cutting back on the commitment that was made last year,” said Susan Frost, executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, who said she did not think that was Mr. Bush’s intent.

“I can’t imagine that was the intention,” agreed a Republican budget aide. “It would be disastrous for those programs.”

‘Not Good Enough’

Even if Mr. Bush intended to add his new initiatives to the Reagan budget, that would not satisfy education advocates, who criticized the plan last week.

“This is just not good enough for the ‘education President,”’ said Ms. Frost, noting that the Bush and Reagan proposals combined produce a funding increase that is not enough to keep up with inflation.

The $21.9-billion Reagan education budget calls for eliminating 24 programs and shifting about $750 million to other programs, mainly those targeted at the disadvantaged. It would increase total spending for fiscal 1990 by only $9.4 million over the 1989 level.

Mr. Bush’s new proposals and a revision in the amount needed for the Stafford student-loan entitlement program would boost the department’s total to about $22.4 billion.

Education advocates said that they would prefer to see more money provided for proven programs, such as Chapter 1, rather than for Mr. Bush’s new proposals.

“They’ve taken money and schmoozed it around, but there aren’t any new dollars, and funds are not going into areas where we see critical need,” said Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the National Education Association.

“While we applaud some of the new initiatives, the money can be better spent in other places,” she said. “How about Chapter 1, or the dropout program, or programs for infants and families?”


Democratic members of the House Education and Labor Committee were harsher in their criticism when Mr. Cavazos appeared before them last week. The meeting was billed as a hearing on Chapter 1, but discussion of the budget dominated.

“Presidential words, promises, speeches, and omb’s sleight-of-hand cannot cover the fact that fewer American schoolchildren will get the educational services they need to finish high school, go to college, and get a job because the Bush Administration has not stopped the spending erosion that has taken place over the past eight years,” said Representative Augustus F. Hawkins, the California Democrat who chairs the committee.

Mr. Cavazos pointed to the $151-million increase Mr. Reagan proposed for Chapter 1, but panel members said that at least $30 million more would be needed just to maintain current services in the program.

“We would have to drop kids from Chapter 1,” said Representative Dale E. Kildee, Democrat of Michigan. “How can we explain to them that this is an increase?”

Mr. Hawkins also said he was not inclined to consider new education programs like those proposed by Mr. Bush--most of which would require new legislation--just one year after the Congress reauthorized most elementary- and secondary-education programs.

Mr. Bush proposed programs to reward “merit schools” and outstanding teachers, to aid magnet schools created for reasons other than desegregation, and to promote alternative-certification routes for4prospective teachers.

Mr. Hawkins specifically criticized a program that would create 570 science scholarships to be awarded by members of Congress and the President, arguing that this would help “the best students, who would probably be good students whether or not they got an award.”

Obstacles Foreseen

Most Congressional aides interviewed last week, including some Republicans, agreed that Mr. Bush’s new proposals face serious obstacles.

“Some of these things are interesting, but Congress may not want to look at new programs when they can’t fund the old ones,” a Republican Senate aide said.

Representative William F. Goodling of Pennsylvania, ranking Republican on the Education and Labor Committee, was slightly more optimistic.

“A lot of these are good ideas that people can support, but [Mr. Bush] first has to show my colleagues how he is going to finance some of the sacred cows that exist,” he said in an interview after last week’s hearing.

Budget and appropriations aides said it was too early to tell what form negotiations between the Congress and the White House would take.

The budget director, Richard G. Darman, began meeting with Congressional leaders last week and was scheduled to appear at budget hearings this week, as was Mr. Cavazos.

A version of this article appeared in the February 22, 1989 edition of Education Week as Bush Budget Plan Has Congress Searching for ‘the Bottom Line’