Moves Afoot To Scrap or Modify Budget Agreement

By Mark Pitsch — September 25, 1991 4 min read

WASHINGTON--Although the Congress is still working on the fiscal 1992 spending bill that includes education programs, education lobbyists and their allies on Capitol Hill are already plotting to secure more federal dollars in the years ahead.

To succeed, they say, it is crucial to scrap or modify the 1990 budget agreement that set separate, three-year spending caps for defense, domestic, and international spending--a move that would allow the Congress to seize a “peace dividend” and move money from defense to domestic programs.

“Given the current geopolitical situation, there’s an opportunity to rearrange the spending priorities,” said Edward R. Kealy, the president of the Committee for Education Funding and the director of federal relations for the National School Boards Association. “There’s an institutional reluctance not to break [the budget act], but that may be the [greatest] concern.”

Lawmakers are usually loath to breach bipartisan agreements such as the 1990 Budget Enforcement Act, because that could incite partisan warfare or at least force them to once again take high-profile positions on controversial issues. But the 1990 accord, crafted by a small circle of Congressional and White House officials under the threat of a government shutdown, is becoming increasingly unpopular as its restrictions put greater pressure on domestic spending.

In addition, recent events in the Soviet Union have renewed talk of a peace dividend, and some advocates view the upcoming Presidential and Congressional elections as an opportunity to secure commitments.

Earlier this month, several senators expressed their displeasure during debate on the Senate version of HR 2707, a $204-billion fiscal 1992 social-services spending bill that includes $30.6 billion for Education Department programs.

“The budget agreement we negotiated last year responded very tentatively to the world of 1990,” said Senator Jim Sasser, the Tennessee Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. “But what has become even far more obvious, as the world of 1991 spins light years beyond where we were just 12 months ago, is that certain parts of the budget agreement do appear obsolete or obsolescent.”

“There is no question in my mind that we need to reconsider the disposition of fiscal resources upon which we decided last year,” he said, “especially with respect to the division between defense and domestic discretionary spending.”

Mr. Sasser, one of the architects of the accord, made those comments during debate on an amendment that would have transferred $3.1 billion in Defense Department funds to education and health programs-a violation of the agreement.

Fueling the Fire

Other senators have expressed similar sentiments, and some have advanced specific proposals to increase education funding and reassess the budget agreement.

Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, kicked off the debate over priorities by introducing the amendment to HR 2707 that would have transferred funds from defense to domestic programs.

Mr. Harkin, who announced last week that he is running for President, may also have been kicking off his campaign.

Although the amendment was handily defeated by a vote of 78 to 22, a number of the senators who voted against it--for example, Mr. Sasser--said they agreed with Mr. Harkin’s motives.

An aide to Mr. Harkin said he was encouraged by the outcome.

“He does intend to push on the issue of education funding at all levels,” the aide said. “It definitely isn’t over.”

Laying the Framework

Senator Paul Simon, Democrat of Illinois, has formally asked President Bush to convene a new budget summit with Congressional leaders to renegotiate the terms of the 1990 budget agreement.

He sponsored an amendment to the spending bill that calls for a reexamination of the nation’s budget priorities. He has also introduced a bill, S 644, that would eliminate the spending caps by combining the three accounts, something that would not occur until 1994 under the existing agreement.

“The need for additional money for education and the Higher Education Act is certainly an important factor in all of this,"an aide to Mr. Simon said.

Senator Tim Wirth, the Colorado Democrat who sponsored an amendment that added $300 million to education programs in HR 2707, plans to survey colleagues over the next several months about “laying the framework to increase [education spending] and placing it as a priority for next year,” according to an aide.

In debate on his amendment, Mr. Wirth said it was the first step toward significantly increasing education funding.

The amendment “is going to make us understand that we made some commitments to education that are going to have to be funded next year,” he said. “We are making priority decisions for next year, and we are going to squeeze other programs because we made this commitment. It is for education.”

In addition, the senator told C.E.F. officials that he would keep in close touch with them, and suggested that they begin pushing for more education funding as soon as this budget cycle is completed.

Mr. Kealy said the organization will press the President, members of the Congress, and candidates for political office over the next several months to take a stand in support of increased education funding.

“The thing we’ve got going for us is the pressure of an election year and a whole unmet domestic agenda that is going to get worse next year,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the September 25, 1991 edition of Education Week as Moves Afoot To Scrap or Modify Budget Agreement