Congress Clears Education Spending Bill for 1992

By Mark Pitsch — November 13, 1991 5 min read

WASHINGTON---The Congress last week approved a $205-billion social service spending bill for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, but only in the Senate did the bill garner enough votes to override a threatened Presidential veto.

The measure, which includes $31.5 billion for Education Department programs, passed the House on a 27240-156 vote, well short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto. In addition to 220 Democrats and one independent, 51 Republicans voted for the bill; 42 Democrats joined 114 Republicans in voting against.

In the Senate, the bill, HR 2707, passed by a 72-to-25 vote, winning five votes more than needed to override a veto.

President Bush has said he would veto the bill because it includes language that would bar the use of federal funds to enforce the so-called “gag rule,” which forbids federally funded family-planning clinics to advise women of the option of abortion when they become pregnant.

In an effort to placate wavering lawmakers, Mr. Bush sent a memorandum outlining his position on the issue to Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis W. Sullivan a day before the House vote.

In the memo, the President stated that a woman being counseled at a federally funded clinic can be referred to a physician or clinic that performs abortions only if the woman “is found to be pregnant and to have a medical problem.”

Override Seen Unlikely

The spending bill would only prevent implementation of the “gag rule” for one year. A separate bill that would overturn the rule permanently has already passed the Senate; some House members have vowed to bring a similar measure to the floor of that chamber.

An aide to Representative William H. Natcher, the Kentucky Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, said that if the President vetoed the spending bill, its supporters would take a private head count to see if they had enough votes to override. If not, the aide said, the abortion-counseling provision would likely be dropped.

Last week’s vote, the aide conceded, “didn’t look particularly encouraging.” In addition to concern over the abortion-counseling provision, some opponents in the House and the Senate said they could not support the bill because it would delay spending of $4.2 billion until the last day of the 1992 fiscal year, effectively pushing the spending into the next fiscal year.

It is unclear how many members voted against the bill solely because they opposed the delayed funding, which could severely restrict the amount of money available for discretionary programs in fiscal 1993 if the budget agreement negotiated by the Congress and the White House last year is not revised.

The decision to delay the funding helped lawmakers trim the bill to fit the $59.3-billion allocation given to social-service programs by appropriators.

In their first sweep over the bill, House and Senate conferees exceeded the allocation by $814 million. After three weeks of negotiations, they settled on a combination of cuts in their tentative allocations and delayed spending that left discretionary education programs with about $1.7 billion more than they received in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.

The overall education figure of $31.5 billion is $4.4 billion more than in fiscal 1991, but much of the increase is attributable to changes in the accounting of the Guaranteed Student Loan program. (See Education Week, Nov. 6, 1991 .)

Funding Levels Not the Issue

In debate over the bill in both the House and the Senate, virtually nothing was said about its education-funding levels. Instead, debate focused on the abortion-counseling issue and the delayed funding obligations.

In urging his colleagues to support the bill and reject President Bush’s position, Representative John Porter, Republican of Illinois, said suspending the “gag rule” for one year would allow the Department of Health and Human Services time to draft better regulations governing the use of Title X family-planning funds.

President Bush’s memorandum, Mr. Porter said, “does nothing. It’s extralegal and has no effect.”

Representative Steve Gunderson, Republican of Wisconsin, said that although he considers himself an opponent of abortion, he would vote for the bill because it contains funding for a number of vital programs.

“If my vote today is a choice between my district’s needs and my political future, I cast my vote for my district’s needs,” he said.

And Representative Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, said the gag rule, which was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year, represents an ominous precedent.

“If the government can tell a physician what to say, then the government can tell a teacher what to say,” she argued.

But others who voted against the bill said there were other avenues through which the House could attempt to overturn the rule.

Representative Barbara F. Vucanovich, Republican of Nevada, said inclusion of the provision in a popular spending bill was an attempt to squeeze votes out of antiabortion legislators and “has caused these vital programs to be entangled in a heated and unnecessary debate.’'

Delayed Spending Criticized

Although the counseling issue provoked the veto threat, the inclusion of delayed obligations will have a longer-term effect on the education, health, and labor programs funded by the bill, lawmakers said.

Representatives Dan Burton, Republican of Indiana, and Timothy J. Penny, Democrat of Minnesota, threatened to force a roll-call vote on every delayed-spending item, but they later relented.

Mr. Natcher and others acknowledged that the use of delayed obligations would make it difficult for appropriators to work within next year’s spending caps. But the Kentucky Democrat pointed out that President Bush, in his budget request, called for $8.7 billion in delays across 7 of the 13 funding bills.

“This is one time you can’t blame the Congress of the United States,” Mr. Natchef said.

The recently passed Defense Department spending bill, observed Representative Leon E. Panetta, Democrat of California and chairman of the House Budget Committee, included $3.3 billion in delayed spending and no member had objected to it.

Brief Debate in Senate

On the Senate side, debate was much more subdued and lasted only 30 minutes. The only senator to speak in opposition to the bill, Pete V. Domenici, Republican of New Mexico, said the bill’s supporters “want to prejudice next year’s [budget] cycle” by including the funding delays.

Many lawmakers have begun calling for revision of the Budget Enforcement Act of 1990, which set spending caps for domestic, international, and defense accounts.

But the aide to Mr. Natcher said the inclusion of delayed obligations in HR 2707 was not an attempt to force a revision.

A version of this article appeared in the November 13, 1991 edition of Education Week as Congress Clears Education Spending Bill for 1992