Last week, House and Senate conferees reached an agreement on the 2004 congressional budget resolution before leaving town for a two-week district work period. While the final version includes an increase of approximately $3 billion over fiscal 2003 levels for education programs, it is likely to come at the expense of other education programs and is over $4 billion less than the Senate-passed level.
The budget resolution claims to increase education spending by $3 billion, the plan calls for increases in Title I ($1 billion), special education ($2.2 billion), Impact Aid ($50 million), and Pell Grants ($1.3 billion), for a total of over $4.5 billion. It includes an unspecified cut of $7.6 billion to other domestic spending which the Appropriations committee could use in part to pay for the increases for education. Without that cut, the education increases may not be provided.
The final budget resolution does not, however, include the House-backed plan to cut $9.7 billion in mandatory education spending. Such a cut would have come from student loans and free and reduced price school lunches for poor students. In the end, the final decision on line-by-line assumptions for individual education programs will be left to members of the appropriations committees.
Although the budget includes an increase of $1 billion for Title I under No Child Left Behind, the plan still falls over $6 billion below the amount to which Congress committed when the bill was signed into law. Not only does this amount fall below the authorized level for younger students, it does not include the amount needed now to help high school students meet higher standards, pass exit exams, and graduate from high school.
Even though education was one of the most important issues in the House-Senate conference, it paled in comparison to the debate on the size of the tax cut. The final agreement allows each of the two tax committees to draft bills that cut taxes by as much as $550 billion over 10 years. However, according to CQ Weekly, “any bill larger than $350 billion could be killed on the Senate floor by a new point of order that would require 60 votes to waive-effectively making that the threshold during the initial debate on the Senate floor.” It continues, “But the proposed arrangement would permit negotiators to return a bill of up to the full $550 billion, with the resulting conference report passable with only simple majorities in both chambers.”
With Sen. Zell Miller (D-GA) as the sole Democrat publicly supporting the president’s tax plan, Republicans can only afford to lose one senator from their party. Currently, Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and George Voinovich (R-OH) have pledged to reject any tax cut plan that would exceed the $350 billion that the Senate passed in its budget plan. Additionally, Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lincoln Chafee (R-RI) are opposed to any tax cuts at this time. Republican leaders are hopeful that a victory in the war against Iraq will have strengthened President Bush’s position on a larger tax cut when the vote comes up later in the year. However, many Democrats and advocates for domestic priorities are hopeful that the tax cut will go no higher than $350 billion.
Because they fall under the jurisdiction of two separate committees, the level of the tax cut does not necessarily affect this year’s final appropriation for education. However, the long-term effect of a large tax cut that would affect spending decisions for the next ten years would greatly affect the ability of Congress to make substantial investments in education.