News in Brief: A Washington Roundup

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2004 Education Budget Awaits Senate Action

The Senate returns to Washington later this month with some overdue fiscal business: a massive spending bill that is more than three months behind schedule.

The multiagency package for fiscal 2004, which includes a $3 billion increase for the Department of Education, has been ready since early December, when House and Senate negotiators wrapped up work on it.

But while the final plan passed the House soon after the agreement was reached, the plan got hung up in the Senate.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, was upset by some provisions and objected to efforts to pass the plan without a roll-call vote. Fearing a prolonged floor debate, Republican leaders opted to defer final action until after the holiday recess.

The Senate is expected to reconvene on Jan. 20 and take up the budget bill then.

The spending package for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 bundles together seven separate bills. It would provide $56 billion in discretionary spending for the Education Department, compared with $53.1 billion in fiscal 2003. The fiscal 2004 level is about $3 billion more than President Bush requested.

Congress is still ahead of last year's schedule, when a final omnibus spending bill didn't reach the president's desk until early February.

—Erik W. Robelen

Education, HHS Launch Preschool-Research Effort

Finding the best ways to prepare preschool children for later success in school is the goal of a recently launched research project involving both the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services.

The five-year initiative will cost $7.4 million in the first year, with grants going to eight universities to conduct the work. The researchers will test preschool curricula, examine the effectiveness of Internet-based teacher training, and conduct research on the importance of parental involvement in getting children ready for school.

Other studies within the project include a look at curricula used in many Head Start classrooms and a focus on the educational needs of Latino children.

The research initiative grew out of a 2001 White House summit on early cognitive development, led by first lady Laura Bush.

—Linda Jacobson

High Court Strikes Down Ban on Minors' Giving

The U.S. Supreme Court has unanimously overturned a section of the McCain- Feingold campaign-finance law barring people under 18 from making political contributions.

The ruling last month came as part of the high court's lengthy decision in McConnell v. Federal Election Commission (Case No. 02-1674), which upheld the major provisions of the year-old law banning "soft money"—unregulated donations to political parties rather than to candidates—and limiting campaign-season political advertising. ("New Campaign-Finance Law Plays to Union Strength," April 17, 2002.)

In his opinion for the court on the prohibition on political contributions by minors, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist called the ban "an unnecessary abridgment" of young people's free- speech rights.

He cited the court's landmark 1969 decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District on the free-speech rights of students.

While Congress intended the measure to keep parents from using their children to get around donation limits, the chief justice said there was "scant evidence" of such evasion. Further, the practice is already prohibited by federal regulations, and more than a dozen states have enacted narrower safeguards against parental piggybacking, he said.

In upholding the main provisions of the campaign-finance law, a five-member majority strongly affirmed Congress's authority to pass laws to lessen both the perception and the reality that wealthy individuals, corporations, and unions hold disproportionate sway over government.

Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen G. Breyer were in the majority in upholding the law's main provisions.

Before the ban on soft money took effect, the 2.7 million-member National Education Assocation and the 1.3 million-member American Federation of Teachers had markedly increased their unregulated donations to the Democratic Party.

—Bess Keller

Vol. 23, Issue 16, Page 28

Published in Print: January 7, 2004, as News in Brief: A Washington Roundup
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