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CONGRESS DELAYS EDUCATION FUNDING DECISIONS: Short-Term Measure Funds Government Into March, Ensures Greater Role for Republicans in Negotiations

“The only reason for supporting this legislation today—and it is an overriding one—is to keep the government operating. If I were to vote my preferences, I would vote ‘no’ because I believe we should have before us today a continuing resolution for the rest of the fiscal year.”

With the clock running out on 2010 and members of Congress still unable to come to an agreement on the final appropriations bills that would determine 2011 spending levels for the U.S. Department of Education and other federal agencies, Congress passed a continuing resolution (CR) that keeps the federal government funded through March 4, 2011. This temporary funding mechanism means that Congress and President Obama could spend much of the first months of 2011 trying to finish the spending decisions that were supposed to be completed in 2010.

“The only reason for supporting this legislation today—and it is an overriding one—is to keep the government operating. If I were to vote my preferences, I would vote ‘no’ because I believe we should have before us today a continuing resolution for the rest of the fiscal year,” said Representative David Obey (D-WI), outgoing House Appropriations Committee Chairman. “But, instead, we are here today confronted with this legislation, which expires on March 4 and which will require the incoming Republican majority to spend the first two months of its stewardship dealing with last year’s business. I think that’s unfortunate.”

During debate on the measure, Obey expressed frustration with the partisan gridlock in the Senate that prevented passage of a full-year CR. “Only in the United States Senate can you get a majority of votes for any proposition and still lose because of their peculiar rules,” he said. Obey argued that a full-year CR, would have allowed the incoming Republican majority to start with a “clean slate” in working with President Obama.

Representative Jerry Lewis (R-CA), then top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, placed blame for the unfinished business on the House of Representatives. “The House has dithered away the year on insignificant suspension bills,” he said. “We have named hundreds of post offices and praised every sports team in America, but the House has failed in completing its essential work, the work we were elected to do, that is, passing a budget for the new fiscal year. This isn’t exactly how any of us envisioned we would be wrapping up our legislative business this year; but with the hour growing late, it appears that we are limping into the New Year with another short-term CR. And that is the best that we can do under these circumstances.”

For a brief time in December, it appeared that a short-term CR would not be the only option as the House passed a full-year CR while Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-HI) and Thad Cochran (R-MI), top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, worked to wrap all twelve unfinished appropriations bills into a single omnibus bill that would fund the federal government for the full fiscal year. In the end, neither proposal could win the sixty votes needed to overcome a filibuster in the Senate.

The omnibus bill included several provisions of interest to education advocates, including a $1.7 billion increase in funding for the U.S. Department of Education. It also included a provision that would have provided $546 million for the School Improvement Grants program and targeted much of these funds to turn around struggling high schools nationwide. Approximately 1,900 high schools—located across the nation and found in every state—account for half of the nation’s dropouts even though they only make up about 10 percent of the nation’s high schools.

To attract bipartisan support for the $1.3 trillion omnibus bill, Inouye and Cochran included thousands of earmarks for individual member projects. In the end, these earmarks proved to be the bill’s undoing as GOP leaders, tea party activists, and fiscal conservations mounted enough opposition to prevent the consideration of the bill. (For information on how much individual education programs would have received under the Senate’s omnibus bill, consult the “2011 Senate Omnibus” column in this chart prepared by the U.S. Department of Education).

Instead, the short-term CR that Congress ultimately agreed upon froze funding for most programs throughout the federal government, including those such as Title I and special education that fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Education. The bill included additional funds for some programs, including $5.7 billion to cover a shortfall in the Pell Grant program and maintain the maximum Pell Grant award at $5,550.

Many observers see the short-term CR as a victory for Republicans who, thanks to huge gains on Election Day, took control of the House of Representatives and will play a larger role in spending decisions moving forward. With control of Congress now split between Republicans in the House and Democrats in the Senate, negotiations on spending decisions are not likely to be easy—especially considering House Republicans’ vow to cut nonmilitary discretionary spending to Fiscal Year 2008 levels.

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