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CONGRESS PASSES FY 2009 OMNIBUS BILL: Bill Will Provide $4.45 Billion Increase for U.S. Department of Education

“We felt that rather than capitulate and make those cuts, we would simply say, ‘All right, Mr. President, for the four remaining months that you’re in office, we’ll be living at your budget level,’”

Throughout 2008, Democrats clashed with President Bush over funding levels for domestic priorities. Whereas President Bush’s budget proposed to freeze spending for domestic programs not related to defense or homeland security, Democrats favored a plan that would increase spending by about $20 billion. In September 2008, with both sides holding firm in their demands, Congress approved a temporary continuing resolution that funded nearly all domestic spending at the previous year’s levels.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-WI) explained Democrats’ rationale for enacting the temporary funding bill, which came with an expiration date of March 6. “We felt that rather than capitulate and make those cuts, we would simply say, ‘All right, Mr. President, for the four remaining months that you’re in office, we’ll be living at your budget level,’” Obey said in September, “but we will kick the can down the road so if we have a president who will negotiate like an adult at the end of the road next year, then we will try to cut some compromises that will preserve some of these high-priority areas.”

Now, with a new president in the White House and an increased majority in the House of Representatives, House Democrats combined the nine Fiscal Year (FY) 2009 appropriations bills that Congress failed to pass at the end of 2008 into a single omnibus spending package. With a price tag of $410 billion, the omnibus bill funds most domestic discretionary programs through the end of the federal fiscal year (September 30). It provides $19 billion more than President Bush requested for FY 2009, including a $4.45 billion increase for the U.S. Department of Education.

Although the omnibus bill received quick approval in the House of Representatives, passing by a vote of 245–178 on February 25, it faced stiff opposition in the Senate, where Democrats control fifty-eight votes, two short of the sixty required for passage. The fact that two Democrats, Senators Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Evan Bayh (D-IN), declared their opposition to the bill meant that Democrats needed the support of at least four Republicans to pass it.

“The solution going forward is to stop wasteful spending before it starts,” Bayh wrote in a commentary for the Wall Street Journal. “Families and businesses are tightening their belts to make ends meet—and Washington should too. … Congress should vote ‘no’ on this omnibus and show working families across the country that we are as committed to living within our means as they are.”

On the evening of March 5, it appeared that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) would have the sixty votes necessary to invoke cloture and end debate on the bill. However, with the time for the vote drawing near, several Republican senators expressed their intent to vote “no” in order to allow the Senate to consider more amendments to the bill. When it became apparent that the Senate would not be able to approve the bill before the March 6 deadline, Congress passed a second continuing resolution that extended the deadline until March 11.

On March 9, the Senate resumed consideration of the bill and had to defeat an additional ten amendments before the cloture vote. Had the Senate approved any amendments to the bill, the entire package could have been doomed because House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) had previously said that she would not allow the House to approve any changes that the Senate made to the House-passed measure. “We put our members through a lot over here,” Pelosi told Senator Reid. “I’m not going to put them through anymore. If there are any amendments to the [omnibus bill], we’re going to do a [continuing resolution] for the rest of the year.”

A continuing resolution for the rest of the year would have frozen funding for all programs covered under the stimulus at the previous year’s levels, meaning that all of the increases for education programs that were included in the stimulus bill would have disappeared.

However, on March 10, when eight Republicans joined fifty-four Democrats in voting for cloture, Senator Reid had enough votes to end the debate on the measure. The bill passed shortly thereafter on a voice vote.

With the bill’s passage, several education programs will see an increase. Title I, which received $13.9 billion in FY 2008 will receive a $593.5 million increase. Funding for special education will increase by $586 million to $11.99 billion. The omnibus bill will also provide increases for afterschool programs, the Elementary and Secondary School Counseling program, Smaller Learning Communities, TRIO, and GEAR UP. The Striving Readers program, which targets middle and high school students who read below grade level, will receive $35.4 million, the same amount it received in FY 2008. (Funding levels for these and other education programs that benefit middle and high schools are available here).

One program that did not fare as well is the Reading First program, which has taken heat from Congress for mismanagement and conflicts of interest. The omnibus bill eliminated funding for that program, which received $393 million in FY 2008.

In addition to the funding increases, many in the education world are keeping a close eye on a provision in the omnibus that could effectively put an end to a private school voucher program in Washington, DC. As written in the omnibus bill, the provision requires congressional renewal of the program for it to continue beyond the 2009–10 school year. Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) said the requirement would help determine whether the voucher program works. “Congress will take a look at the program and decide if the money is well spent,” he said. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that he supports continuing the program, which provides over 1,700 students in the District of Columbia with scholarships of up to $7,500 per student to attend private or parochial schools in the District.

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