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‘Hail Mary’ Budget Move Could Throw Federal Education Spending Into Question

By Andrew Ujifusa — April 04, 2018 3 min read
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Remember when we said President Donald Trump wasn’t totally thrilled about signing a spending bill that included a $2.6 billion increase for education? Apparently, it’s bugging him so much that he’s still trying to find a way to make cuts.

Trump has reportedly discussed with House Republican leaders the idea of effectively cutting some spending out of the $1.3 trillion omnibus bill he signed late last month, according to recent reports in both Roll Call and the Washington Post.

The Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 allows presidents to withhold or defer money from specific programs, as long as they get Congress’ approval. Here’s a relevant summary from that law:

Pursuant to the Act, the President must notify Congress whenever he proposes a rescission or deferral of funds. If Congress does not pass a rescission bill within 45 days of continuous session, the President must release all funds proposed for rescission. The President may defer funding within a particular fiscal year, subject to the enactment of a measure disapproving the deferral.

If Trump makes such a request, it would have to specify the programs he wants to withhold or defer money from for fiscal 2018. Because there would be a deadline on a vote on any such proposal, the Senate could approve it with only 51 votes, instead of the 60 votes typically required to overcome a filibuster.

Congress could also choose to approve just a part of the request. Read more about the process here from the Office of Management and Budget.

The Trump budget request for fiscal 2018 sought major cuts to several K-12 programs, including the elimination of $2.1 billion in Title II spending for educator professional development, $1.1 billion in funding for after-school programs, and $400 million in Title IV funding, a block-grant program for districts to use in a variety of areas. In their final fiscal 2018 budget, Congress flat-funded Title II, increased after-school aid by $20 million, and dramatically boosted Title IV to $1.1 billion.

So how worried are education funding advocates? Conceding to any such demand from Trump would mean lawmakers would have to go back on the brand-new spending bill they just approved. It would also mean reversing a prior congressional agreement to raise spending caps on defense and non-defense discretionary spending for fiscal years 2018 and 2019, said Sarah Abernathy, the deputy executive director at the Committee for Education Funding, an umbrella group that represents many groups seeking more federal K-12 aid. Those two factors could make any move by Trump to withhold omnibus funding very unlikely to succeed.

“We take any threat to education funding seriously, especially since Congress did fund some programs well above what the administration wanted,” Abernathy said. But she added, “GOP leaders supported the budget that allowed this overall level of funding for non-defense programs.”

Measured by discretionary federal funding, the U.S. Department of Education is the fifth-largest department in Washington, after the Departments of Defense, Health and Human Services, Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security. So it wouldn’t have the biggest target on its back as measured by overall dollars. But Trump hasn’t made it clear which portions of the spending bill he’d want to withhold. He could be more interested in making cuts at HHS and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., the top House lawmaker for Education Department funding, recently chastised Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos for requesting some of the same cuts for fiscal 2019 that Congress ultimately rejected for fiscal 2018. That’s probably not a great sign for any rescission proposal, even though there is a notable contingent of House lawmakers—specifically the House Freedom Caucus—who in general would like to see spending cut on discretionary domestic programs, a category that includes the Education Department.

Abernathy noted that the fiscal 2018 spending bill amounts to a repudiation of Trump’s two budget request for both fiscal 2018 and 2019.

Want more info about how much money education programs are getting in fiscal 2018? Check out the chart below: