Congress Delays Education Budget Decision

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Congress opted last week not to pass a final fiscal 2001 education spending plan until after Election Day, leaving education groups fretting that proposed record-breaking funding increases for schools may slip through their hands.

Early last week, what looked to be a concrete agreement on education spending fell through, and lawmakers made plans to leave Washington until after Tuesday's elections. Deals on school construction, after-school programs, and hiring new teachers appeared to be in jeopardy, as the Senate approved a temporary spending measure to keep education programs funded at current levels until Nov. 14. The House was set to follow suit, which would necessitate a post- election congressional session to finish the spending bill and a handful of other lingering items.

The plan—which was scuttled only hours after it was worked out—would have raised Department of Education spending by $7.5 billion, to $43.1 billion, a record 21 percent from the current $36.1 billion, according to the Committee for Education Funding. It also would have increased total spending under the Individual with Disabilities Education Act by about 27 percent, from $6 billion to $7.7 billion.

When members of Congress return to Washington to revisit the spending bill, they may feel less pressure to stick with their generous spending plans without Election Day looming, said Edward R. Kealy, the CEF'S executive director.

"We think there's a big risk ... that we'll see that increase shrink," said Mr. Kealy, whose coalition of education groups lobbies for federal education aid. "We will expect Congress to honor this agreement and go back to these levels of funding, because we think that's what the American people want."

Republicans were not making any promises last week.

"I can't predict what is going to happen, because lame-duck sessions are notoriously unpredictable," said John Scofield, a spokesman for Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee.

Agreement Upended

The 2000 fiscal year ended Sept. 30, but at press time Congress had passed 13 "continuing resolutions" to keep the federal government running. While the huge spending bill that includes education, labor, and health programs is typically one of the last to be finished, it is unusual for the process to take as long as it has this year. In an election year, lawmakers generally try to finish business as early as possible to go home to campaign.

This year, though, was different, because congressional Republicans believed that there was a good chance voters would elect their party's presidential nominee, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, and that the GOP would retain majority status in at least one chamber of Congress.

Such considerations reduced the leverage that President Clinton, already in his final months in office, normally has enjoyed in budget showdowns with the GOP.

Still, lawmakers had been close to sending Mr. Clinton a spending plan for the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. Negotiators reached a budget compromise on Oct. 29, but it was upended in the early hours of Oct. 30, when Republican leaders decided to take out a provision unrelated to the education funding levels: a proposal that dealt with repetitive-stress injuries in the workplace. In retaliation, Mr. Clinton vetoed a spending plan for the legislative branch that included a pay raise for members of Congress that members considered part of the overall budget deal.

In a sharply worded letter to the president the next day, Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., wrote: "Mr. President, we sent you the check, you cashed it, but you refuse to deliver the goods. As a result, Mr. President, you have added to legislative gridlock."

Democrats quickly shot back.

"It is not too late to end this Halloween nightmare and begin a season of Thanksgiving," Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee and a strong proponent of the president's school construction plan, said in a written statement. "All we ask is for reasonable compromises on these issues important to so many Americans."

The spending plan for education would have accomplished many Democratic goals. It would have allotted $1.3 billion for school construction in a compromise that would have allocated a portion of the funding to pay interest on construction bonds and another portion for districts to spend in other areas, such as special education—a priority for the GOP.

It also would have provided $1 billion—up from $453 million—for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative, which supports after-school and other activities. And, it would have funded Mr. Clinton's class-size-reduction program at its current appropriation of $1.75 billion.

Vol. 20, Issue 10, Pages 31, 36

Published in Print: November 8, 2000, as Congress Delays Education Budget Decision
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