The 99th Congress returned for its second session last week, faced with the unhappy election-year task of having to either sharply reduce federal spending or raise taxes--or both.
Almost lost amid these overriding political and fiscal issues is the tiny share of the nearly trillion-dollar U.S. budget earmarked for the nation’s schools and colleges.
Education lobbyists acknowledge that they may be powerless against the larger forces driving the Congress--especially the blunt new budget-balancing instrument known as the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law.
But they are trying to fashion a legislative strategy in which local educators exert pressure on their Congressional delegations by expressing strong opposition to any further cuts in their programs and emphasizing the need to avert the across-the-board cuts mandated as a last resort by the new law.
“Most of us recognize that this is the year people have to work their fields and build political pressure locally,” said Michael Casserly, legislative associate for the Council of Great City Schools.
Only a handful of education issues are likely to gain attention on Capitol Hill this year. These include compensatory-education vouchers, the continuing revision of higher-education laws, a possible Administration bilingual-education bill, the reauthorization of the Education Department’s research unit, and civil-rights legislation that has been stalled in committee for almost a year.
Meanwhile, tax reform--which President Reagan said last week remains his top legislative priority--moves to the Senate, where it may become a vehicle for a tax increase.
The Republican chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, said “new revenues” would have to be included if the White House and the Congress can agree on a “historic deficit-cutting package.”
But even before any serious work on major issues had begun, the atmosphere here did not appear favorable to conciliation and compromise.
Early Budget Standoff
The White House, in early budget briefings for Congressional leaders, reportedly held fast to its goals of raising defense spending by 3 percent above the inflation rate, avoiding a tax increase, and substantially reducing domestic spending.
News headlines reporting these meetings summarized the action: “Reagan’s Budget Attacked as Congress Is Reconvened"; “President, Congress Spar on Tax Rise"; “Reagan, Hill Draw Line for Fiscal Battle.”
A bill to repeal Gramm-Rudman-Hollings was introduced on the first day of the session last week.
That law, adding urgency to efforts to curtail spending, prescribes statutory limits on the federal deficit, aiming for a balanced budget in 1991. Even with an $11.7-billion reduction set for March 1, the projected fiscal 1986 deficit is $210 billion. The legal limit for fiscal 1987 is $144 billion.
If a $60-billion cut is required next year, spending for domestic programs will be reduced by about 25 percent, Rudolph G. Penner, director of the Congressional Budget Office, predicted at a Senate hearing last week. Other analysts have said nonmilitary programs may be cut by as much as one-third.
A Democratic member of the House Budget Committee, Representative Charles E. Schumer of New York, projects a 27 percent across-the-board reduction in domestic programs, if one is necessary in fiscal 1987.
His office estimates that the $3.5- billion Chapter 1 program would be reduced to $2.6 billion, the $1.4 billion in special-education funds to $984 million, and Head Start from $1.1 billion to $758 million.
Given the current fiscal uncertainties, education representatives’ main lobbying goal is “to create a climate where members will pay attention to our concerns” when making cuts, said Susan Frost, executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, an umbrella group of education associations.
While deep reductions in programs are a real possibility, it is not unreasonable, she said, to lobby for at least a freeze at current levels--which, after the initial Gramm-Rudman cuts, are now nearly $700-million below what the Congress approved last fall.
And the point that school lobbyists will press, according to Ms. Frost, is that neither the likely Administration proposals---expected to include a $15-billion Education Department budget for fiscal 1987--nor the consequences of another round of Gramm-Rudman cuts are “acceptable for our programs.” She said lobbyists will push for a White House-Capitol Hill compromise that would spare education.
The Congress approved a fiscal 1986 Education Department budget of $18.5 billion, but that total has shrunk by nearly $700 million in the first round of Gramm-Rudman reductions.
Lobbyists May Shift Focus
The new session may also see education lobbyists shift their focus at the committee level. A number of lobbyists say they will redirect their efforts toward the House and Senate appropriations committees--whose binding decisions mark the end of the budget process--and away from the budget committee&-which set overall spending targets that are not necessarily binding.
In the current fiscal year, for example, the budget blueprint included an increase for inflation for the biggest precollegiate-education program--the $3.7-billion Chapter 1 remedial-education effort--but the appropriations committees froze the funding at 1985 levels.
Lobbyists have begun to recognize, said Mr. Casserly, that although they have spent a great deal of time in the last few years “working the budget,” that effort “didn’t represent success of the appropriations side.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 29, 1986 edition of Education Week