Taking Stock of Clinton's Spending Record

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President Clinton and other Democrats are reminding voters in a flurry of speeches and campaign ads that Republicans in Congress voted to kill the drug-free-schools program.

At whistle-stops on Mr. Clinton's way to the Democratic convention in August, audiences applauded his support for the program. "We're investing more in safe and drug-free schools," he said.

The Clinton administration "expanded the Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program that helps keep kids off drugs--and fought off Republican efforts to gut it," Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., the Democratic Party's general chairman, boasted in one of a series of news releases he issued to counter Republicans during their August convention.

But the drug-free-schools program is hardly the president's pet, judging from his own budget proposals. Even though Congress exceeded Mr. Clinton's budget plan for fiscal 1997 and would raise the program from $466 million to $581 million, the program would be left with less money than when President Clinton took office.

And the biggest portion of that slide reflects budget priorities set by Mr. Clinton himself--not the actions of congressional Republicans he portrays as enemies of education funding.

The issue has gained added salience in recent weeks as Mr. Clinton's Republican opponent, former Sen. Bob Dole, has sought to make the reported increase in teen drug use a major issue in the presidential campaign. Mr. Dole, in turn, has come under fire for his own record on drug-education funding.

Treading Water

The Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Program offers one example of how funding for federal education programs has fared during Mr. Clinton's term. Though some programs have seen increases, others have been cut, as Mr. Clinton has moved to a tougher stance on the federal deficit and sought money for his own initiatives.

On taking office in 1993, Mr. Clinton promised to invest in school and other social programs. But after the defeat of his proposed economic-stimulus package early in the administration, Mr. Clinton focused on reducing the budget deficit, often to the detriment of the domestic programs he wanted to expand, say experts in the congressional budget process.

"There's only so much you can expect in the circumstances where you're trying to bring the deficit down," said Robert D. Reischauer, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

And while the deficit is on its way down, funding for federal education programs is nowhere close to what Mr. Clinton wanted when he took office.

"We've treaded water," Marshall S. Smith, the undersecretary of education, said. "The Democratic Congress was so-so, nowhere near what we hoped. We were up in the first couple years, and we moved down last year."

But as he stumps for re-election, Mr. Clinton doesn't remind voters that he didn't meet his spending goals even with a friendly Congress in his first two years.

Instead, he highlights a 1995 House plan--proposed by the new GOP majority--to wipe out the drug-free-schools program, and votes by Mr. Dole to cut the drug-abuse-prevention effort in half and cut other Department of Education programs.

"Do they score points with it? Yes," said Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla. "Are they irresponsible? Definitely."

Meanwhile, the final proposal for fiscal 1997 spending would raise aid for the drug-free-schools program above the $540 million Mr. Clinton proposed.

If the program gets the amount Congress now proposes, it will still be $17 million shy of its level when Mr. Clinton took office--and quietly recommended that Congress cut it by $100 million.

Making Up Losses

When the Democrats controlled Congress and Mr. Clinton signed the annual appropriations bills they passed, federal education funding rose $2.2 billion, from $25.2 billion in fiscal 1993 to $27.4 billion two years later. Since then, discretionary spending on school programs has fallen $1.6 billion, despite Mr. Clinton's high-profile commitment to protecting education from cuts.

By contrast, a Democratic Congress and a Republican president, George Bush, added $2.3 billion to federal education programs from fiscal 1991 to 1993.

The 1997 spending plan congressional Republicans and the administration negotiated last week will probably top the total increase education programs won during the first two years of Mr. Clinton's term. ("Republicans Settle on Generous Budget Bill" This Week's News.)

Looking back over the nearly four years Mr. Clinton has been in the White House, it seems clear why hopes for a big boost in education spending withered: It's difficult to reduce the federal deficit without holding down domestic spending.

Congress put obstacles in front of Mr. Clinton's education-spending plans almost immediately after he took office. Republicans in the Senate filibustered Mr. Clinton's plan to stimulate the economy with $16 billion in new spending, including $1.3 billion for Title I remedial education and other education programs.

In that debate, the Republicans--then in the minority--branded Mr. Clinton as a tax-and-spend liberal who did not care about the deficit. In response, Mr. Clinton focused on the deficit. The budget law the Democratic majority enacted at Mr. Clinton's urging in the summer of 1993 made any significant increases in federal education aid unlikely, Mr. Reischauer and other experts say.

Competing Priorities

The Democrats' five-year plan called for no growth in the amount Congress appropriates for domestic programs. Federal K-12 programs receive all their money from that pool of money, which Congress divides every year.

With no additional money to appropriate, Congress pitted K-12 programs against job training, health research, and other domestic programs.

The results have been mixed. Title I--the largest K-12 program--grew 8 percent in Mr. Clinton's first two years, from $6.7 billion to $7.2 billion. In 1991, Mr. Bush signed a Democratic bill for a 10 percent hike in one year.

Other programs took significant hits, including the anti-drug and school-safety program Mr. Clinton now praises.

In 1993, two associate directors of Mr. Clinton's Office of Management and Budget suggested Congress cut the program by $100 million. The officials recommended the cut, along with several others, as a way for appropriators to free up money for Title I, the president's Goals 2000: Educate America Act, and other domestic-spending priorities.

Appropriators dipped deeper into the drug-free-schools program than Mr. Clinton's team suggested in fiscal 1994, trimming $127 million. In a report accompanying the bill, House members said a drop in teenage drug use warranted the cut.

After two years of results that matched those of President Bush, Mr. Clinton began to make his mark on education spending after the GOP won control of Congress nearly two years ago. The Republicans moved to slash school spending as part of their plan to balance the budget and reduce the federal role in education.

Back on the Radar

In 1995, House Republicans moved quickly to make $1.7 billion in midyear cuts from the Department of Education, including all $472 million the previous Democratic Congress gave anti-drug education. The Senate toned down education's losses, taking away $400 million total and nothing from the safe and drug-free schools effort.

"All of a sudden we were at the top of the radar screen," said John Forkenbrock, the executive director of the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools.

Mr. Clinton blocked Republicans' final package of midyear spending cuts, including $874 million from Department of Education, when he used his veto power on the budget for the first time.

But he eventually accepted a bill that cut $575 million from the fiscal 1995 spending the Democratic Congress had approved. And after prolonged talks over fiscal 1996 spending, Mr. Clinton eventually signed a bill that trimmed another $1 billion.

Those cuts are deceptive because they were accomplished mostly by accounting maneuvers, such as delaying payment of Title I funding three months and relying on leftover money from the Pell Grant student-aid program to pay for increases elsewhere.

In the end, Title I and special education, which make up the bulk of the federal K-12 largess, escaped unscathed. Smaller programs, such as the Title VI innovative-strategies block grant (formerly Chapter 2) and professional development, each fell at least $45 million from the amount the Democrats appropriated for 1995.

Despite the losses since 1995, Mr. Clinton now says education stands to be the only winner in his six-year plan to balance the budget. Even Medicare--another program Mr. Clinton vows to protect--would lose money.

The question now is whether Mr. Clinton, if he is re-elected, can accomplish what looks like another ambitious campaign agenda: tax credits for higher education costs, loan subsidies for school construction, and the promise to pump new money into existing school programs.

Vol. 16, Issue 05

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