Ed. Programs Minor Factor in Latest Federal Budget Dust-Up

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As the 113th, lame-duck Congress prepares to waddle off the stage, there's one big loose end it must tie up: a budget—or at least a stopgap spending bill—to keep government agencies like the U.S. Department of Education running.

The current funding measure was set to expire Dec. 11, and lawmakers in both chambers spent last week trying to strike a deal to avert another government shutdown.

To be sure, they have no shortage of legislative strategies in the likely event they aren't able to pass individual agency spending bills, including packaging several agency spending bills into one, known as an omnibus bill, or simply extending current spending levels.

But policy debates over immigration, including Republican resentment of the Obama administration's recent executive action that enables some immigrants to stay in the United States legally and the president's recent veto threat to a package of tax-break extensions, have complicated the process.

Budget Lingo

In recent years, a gridlocked Congress has resorted to a bevy of legislative techniques to keep the government funded in lieu of passing specific appropriations bills. That makeshift process comes with its own set of buzzwords inside the Beltway.

Continuing Resolution:
A stopgap spending bill that continues funding federal departments, agencies, and programs at current levels. This occurs when Congress isn’t able to pass individual appropriations bills before the start of a new fiscal year.

Omnibus Spending Measure:
One large spending bill that combines multiple appropriations bills and is passed as a package with a single vote. Another way to keep the federal government funded without passing appropriations bills, or before a continuing resolution expires.

Discretionary Spending:
Spending for federal departments, agencies, and programs, such as the U.S. Department of Education and its Title I program for schools with large populations of low-income students. The spending is subject to change each year based on the priorities of the current Congress.

Mandatory Spending:
Compulsory spending for entitlement programs, such as TEACH grants for students planning to become teachers and the Pell Grant program that provides tuition assistance for low- and middle-income college students.

Forward-Funded Programs:
Funding that is made available to various programs before the start of the fiscal year, typically by July 1. Most federal education programs are forward-funded, with the exception of Impact Aid, which funds schools located on federal land, such as Indian reservations, and Head Start, which provides free preschool for low-income families.

Adding yet another layer of difficulty, when the 114th Congress convenes Jan. 6, Republicans will control both chambers, setting up a power struggle between the White House and the newly anointed GOP congressional majority. In the meantime, however Congress decides to approve this next round of funding, federal education programs aren't likely to see big changes to their operating budgets.

"Yes, there could be some modest increase in preschool development grants, Title I, or [the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act]—literally a few million dollars," said Joel Packer, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a Washington-based group that advocates increased funding for education programs.

"On the flip side, there could be more cuts, but I don't expect huge increases or huge cuts."

Most federal education programs are forward-funded, meaning a government shutdown still wouldn't affect their operations.

Major Exceptions

Two major exceptions include the $8.6 billion Head Start program, which provides preschool services for low-income families, and the $1.3 billion Impact Aid program. Impact Aid funds go to schools located on federal land, such as Army bases and Native American reservations, which are not bolstered by local taxes because of their location.

A short-term continuing resolution could put Impact Aid schools in a bind, as it did two years ago when the government operated on a stopgap funding measure that expired in March, explained Jocelyn Bissonnette, the director of government affairs for the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools. A short-term fix would only provide the Education Department with the amount of money necessary to run through a specific date, and therefore, the department would only be able to fund Impact Aid schools for part of the school year. "So if we get into the second half of the school year and there isn't a decision about appropriations, the Education Department can't get the money out," said Ms. Bissonnette, adding that a continuing resolution often forces districts to borrow money in the interim.

Competing Scenarios

Related Blog

At press time last week, Congress still hadn't finalized how it plans to avert the looming government shutdown. The proposal gaining the most traction as of Dec. 5 was a hybrid omnibus and continuing resolution strategy, which quickly garnered the nickname "cromnibus."

But getting such a package to the floor would be a challenge.

"Leaving aside all the political stuff on immigration, this is going to be a thousand-page bill with trillions of dollars," said Mr. Packer of the Committee for Education Funding. "You never know if one or two things cause people to say, 'I can't vote for that.' It's always a very complicated piece of legislation."

Vol. 34, Issue 14, Page 14

Published in Print: December 10, 2014, as In Latest Budget Dust-Up, Ed. Programs Minor Factor
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