Funding for the U.S. Department of Education would be cut by $2.8 billion and more than twenty-five federal education programs would be eliminated under the Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS), and Education appropriations bill, which passed a House Appropriations Subcommittee on July 17. The full House Appropriations Committee is expected to vote on the bill on June 24.
“This legislation continues our efforts to reduce wasteful spending, to stop harmful and unnecessary regulations that kill jobs and impede economic growth, and to make wise investments in proven programs on behalf of the American taxpayer,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY). “This bill fulfills these goals, funding cutting-edge medical research, education for disabled children, veterans’ programs, community health centers, Meals on Wheels, and charter schools. At the same time, the bill reflects careful consideration of every program, cutting the fat and making the most of every dollar.”
Representative Nita Lowey (D-NY), top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said she was “very pleased” with the $1.1 billion increase that the bill would provide to the National Institutes of Health and added that the increases for Head Start and special education “could make a real difference in the lives of children in need.” At the same time, however, she said that providing increases for those programs meant “gutting” the rest of the programs in the bill in order to remain under the tight spending limit that the U.S. Congress set for itself—a limit that Lowey called “grossly inadequate.”
The bill eliminates funding for twenty-seven education programs, including School Improvement Grants, the Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy program, and other programs to support innovation, gifted and talented students, school counselors, and Advanced Placement courses. Funding for Title I, which supports schools serving traditionally underserved students and is the largest federal funding stream for K–12 education, would remain at current funding levels under the House’s proposal.
Democrats Seeking Bipartisan Budget Negotiations to Lift Tight Spending Caps
Members of the House and Senate appropriations committees are working within very tight spending limits that were set by the 2011 budget deal, also know as sequestration, and locked in by the budget plan that Congress adopted in May. Under the plan, overall discretionary spending for FY 2016 can rise by less than 1 percent, creating a scenario in which a funding increase for one program often translates into a funding cut for another program.
Earlier this year, President Obama said that he would veto spending bills that were set according to the terms dictated by the sequester. “I’ve been very clear,” Obama told the Huffington Post in March. “We are not going to have a situation where, for example, our education spending goes back to its lowest level since the year 2000—since 15 years ago—despite a larger population and more kids to educate. … We can’t do that to our kids, and I’m not going to sign it.”
When the sequester was adopted, its spending limits were seen as so draconian—for defense spending and domestic spending alike—that it was believed it would force Republicans and Democrats to negotiate a broader budget deal that would lift the spending limits. That has not happened. Instead, Republican leaders increased funding for defense by $38 billion using an accounting maneuver called Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) to add additional money that did not count against the spending limit. No such loophole exists for domestic programs such as education.
On June 18, U.S. Senators Harry Reid (D-NV), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Charles Schumer (D-NY), and Patty Murray (D-WA) sent a letter to Senate Republican leaders calling for bipartisan budget negotiations. “We write to urge you to immediately schedule bipartisan budget negotiations for next week to replace the devastating spending cuts to our national defense and domestic investments known as sequestration,” the letter reads.
“Throughout this appropriations season I’ve heard about difficult choices,” Lowey said. “But this isn’t about choices—it’s about priorities and investing in the future. We could make the choice, today, to work together on a deal to remove the sequester and fund the government at levels that would not leave us behind in a global market. That is a choice we could make. But this bill, and these funding levels, this is a consequence of the Congress’s choice of inaction.”
The U.S. Senate is expected to begin its work on education spending this week when an appropriations subcommittee considers its version of the Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill on June 23, with the bill moving to the full Senate Appropriations Committee on June 25. The next steps are unclear, with Senate Democrats threatening to hold up additional work on appropriations until Republicans agree to negotiate a budget deal that would lift defense and domestic spending limits.
“It’s only June, but it already looks like it might take a while before these differences are ironed out,” said Rachel Bird Niebling, senior policy and advocacy associate at the Alliance for Excellent Education, in the June 19 episode of “Federal Flash,” the Alliance’s five-minute video series on important developments in education policy in Washington, DC. “This week’s action is only the opening salvo in a partisan fight that could last all the way into December, if not longer.”