Senate Budget Committee Chairman Don Nickles, R-Okla., left front, and Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., discuss the fiscal 2004 plan at a March 12 committee meeting.
The Republican-controlled House and Senate took their first steps along the jagged road to a fiscal 2004 budget this month, taking up budget blueprints that suggest the era of burgeoning federal spending for education may be over.
On a vote of 215 to 212 in the wee hours of March 21, the House narrowly approved its version of the budget resolution. At press time, the Senate was still debating a competing version that was expected to face a final vote later that day.
The House plan appears to embrace level funding for the Department of Education in fiscal 2004, consistent with President Bush’s request. The Senate document was still in flux late last week, with several amendments possible that could raise the education price tag. But as it stood, the bill envisioned providing an extra $1 billion or so for the agency, with figures slightly exceeding the White House proposals for special education and the Title I program for disadvantaged students.
The agency’s discretionary budget for the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, is $53.1 billion.
‘The Tough Choices’
Both bills lay out a future of restrained domestic spending, additional tax cuts, and deficits that would take years to eliminate. Of the two, the House plan would take a more aggressive path, calling for a slight cut in domestic spending. The budget resolution does not require the president’s signature.
"[I]t has become crystal clear that we cannot get back on track without re-evaluating our priorities, making the tough choices, and remembering that it’s someone else’s money we’re spending,” Rep. Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, said this month as his panel prepared to take up the budget resolution.
Democrats, not surprisingly, blasted the Republican budget plans— especially given the emphasis on tax cuts—but the legislation also encountered some criticism from moderates in the GOP fold.
“We cannot support a budget resolution that reflects funding levels below the Bush administration’s request and that fails to meet the needs of our domestic priorities, while reducing taxes by $1.4 trillion,” wrote 11 House Republicans in a March 14 letter to the chamber’s GOP leadership shortly after the bill was reported out of committee. Some of those members ultimately voted for a modified budget plan.
On the spending side, the key item in the resolution is the overall spending limit it imposes for discretionary programs. Final decisions on spending within that total are made in the 13 annual appropriations bills Congress is charged with passing.
That said, budgeteers always seek to provide some direction on where the money should go. The resolution groups funding into broad categories. For example, the Department of Education is part of “Function 500,” which covers education, training, employment, and social services.
The House version contains $75.4 billion in budget authority for that category. That is $2.1 billion less than President Bush requested. The Senate bill, at press time, contained $78.5 billion. The next step is for the House and the Senate to reconcile their budget resolutions.
Even though the House plan falls below Mr. Bush’s request, a fact sheet issued by Chairman Nussle suggests Education Department spending similar to Mr. Bush’s fiscal 2004 level of $53.1 billion. That would require cutting Mr. Bush’s request elsewhere.
The House budget plan also delves a bit into the nitty-gritty, outlining some GOP priorities. The Budget Committee report backs spending $9.5 billion for special education state grants, and $12.35 billion for Title I, numbers that match Mr. Bush’s request. Pell Grants would rise to $12.7 billion, as Mr. Bush wants. And it assumes another Bush priority: creating a $75 million pilot program of public and private school choice.
The one area in which the House resolution clearly parted company with Mr. Bush was in rejecting his call to cut $168 million from the $1.1 billion impact-aid program, which provides financial help to school districts whose tax bases are limited by the presence of federal installations. The House would add an extra $50 million. The Senate plan also rejected Mr. Bush’s proposed impact-aid cut.
At the same time, the House budget would require each committee to identify places to cut spending on mandatory programs. The House Education and the Workforce Committee would have to cut nearly $10 billion over the next decade. The main areas of mandatory spending under its purview are the child-nutrition and student-loan programs.
“The Republican majority is again proving how radically out of touch with American families it is by proposing billions in cuts to families trying to educate their children and children who need basic nutrition,” said Rep. George Miller of California, the education committee’s top Democrat.
But David Schnittger, a spokesman for the panel’s chairman, Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, was more upbeat.
“We commend ... Chairman Nussle for the courage and leadership he’s demonstrated in putting forth a budget that doesn’t rely on smoke and mirrors and actually charts a course toward fiscal responsibility in a time of war and changing budget realities,” Mr. Schnittger said.
A ‘Worse Situation’?
In the Senate, the budget resolution at press time called for slightly larger increases than Mr. Bush requested for Title I and special education. It would set aside $12.68 billion for Title I, about $300 million above Mr. Bush’s request, and $9.87 billion for special education state grants, nearly $350 million more than the president wants.
In addition, if the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is reauthorized this year, the Senate plan would make another $205 million available. At the same time, it assumed passage of Mr. Bush’s plan to eliminate 45 Education Department programs.
“Spending has been growing dramatically over the past several years,” Sen. Don Nickles, R- Okla., the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said on the Senate floor last week. “That is not sustainable. That is not affordable.”
He noted that the plan largely tracks the Bush request, though it “bumped over the president’s figures in education.”
But that bump wasn’t enough to satisfy Democrats, who sought to add education dollars.
“A budget is a statement of our priorities,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. “This budget that is before the Senate has a meager investment in funding for the No Child Left Behind Act.”
Joel Packer, a senior lobbyist for the National Education Association, said the budget action last week may auger a repeat of last year’s tardy budget process when House leaders tried to enforce a spending cap unpalatable even to some moderate Republicans.
“They’re putting themselves in the same if not a worse situation,” he said.