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CONGRESS PUNTS EDUCATION FUNDING DECISION TO 2009: Education and Other Domestic Priorities Frozen While Defense and Homeland Security Receive Large Increases

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“During this time of economic uncertainty, our constituents are demanding oversight, transparency, and accountability from Wall Street. They deserve the same from Congress.”

In the final days before the start of the new fiscal year, Congress enacted a massive stopgap spending bill for Fiscal Year (FY) 2009 that postpones most spending decisions until next year. The bill, which freezes nearly all domestic spending at 2008 levels, but provides spending increases for the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, military construction, and veterans’ affairs, will keep the government running until March 6, 2009.

The decision to delay spending decisions was not a surprise. As early as February, when President Bush unveiled a FY 2009 budget that proposed an overall freeze on funding for the U.S. Department of Education and other domestic priorities, Democrats in Congress said that they would rather postpone the spending debate than repeat the months of partisan wrangling, veto threats, and veto override attempts that they went through in 2007.

“The president had us over a barrel last year on the appropriations bills because we did not want another continuing resolution [CR],” saidSenate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) following the unveiling of the president’s budget. “But he does not have us over a barrel this year because either Senator Clinton or Senator Obama will be the president in less than a year. If we have to deal with a CR next year, we will deal with it. … I look forward to working with our colleagues and hope we can do a better job with our appropriations bills than last year. But I repeat, we are not going to be held hostage by the unreasonableness of the White House. I hope we can work together and get some bills passed.”

In a budget hearing with U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings on February 26, Representative David Obey (D-WI), chairman of the House Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS), and Education Appropriations Subcommittee, expressed hope that a compromise with the president could be reached, but also cautioned that he would not waste the time of the Congress or of the Appropriations Committee if the president would not negotiate. “Do we want to work things out, or do we just want to wait until the next president will act like an adult?” Obey asked. “We won’t waste time if the president intends to stick by his budget.”

In mid-June, the stark differences between Congress and President Bush became more clear when Congress passed a budget plan that rejected numerous funding cuts in the Bush budget while also increasing spending for certain domestic priorities. As a result, the difference between the overall spending total in the president’s budget and the Congressional plan was about $20 billion.

On June 26, the Senate Appropriations Committee passed a Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill that would have provided the U.S. Department of Education with $61.8 billion, an increase of $2.6 billion over the president’s budget. Among individual programs, the Senate committee would have provided $14.5 billion for Title I, an increase of $630 million, and $100 million for statewide data systems, an increase of $51.1 million. (A chart that outlines how other education programs would have been funded is available at here.)

The House version of the Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill would have provided $64 billion for the U.S. Department of Education, an increase of $4.8 billion over last year. But instead of passing its version of the bill on June 26, the committee adjourned after Representative Jerry Lewis (R-CA), the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, offered an amendment to strip the text from the Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill and replace it with the text from the appropriations bill for the U.S. Department of the Interior. HouseAppropriations Committee Chairman David Obey called the move a “cheap political stunt;” Lewis maintained that the passage of the Interior bill would help alleviate rising gas prices before the Fourth of July.

In the end, neither the bill approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee nor the one that was shelved by the House Subcommittee on Labor, HHS, and Education ever reached the Senate or House floors. Instead, on September 30, the day before the new fiscal year, the president signed a continuing resolution that will keep most of the government running at current funding levels. However, the bill did specify increases for certain programs and agencies. For example, the Department of Defense will receive a $28.4 billion increase (6 percent), the Department of Homeland Security will receive a $2.3 billion increase (6 percent), and military construction and veterans’ affairs will receive a $9 billion increase (5 percent).

The bill also provides $22.9 billion in emergency funding for relief and recovery in states that have suffered damage from hurricanes, flooding, and wildfires, and an additional $2.5 billion for the Pell grant program to help pay a portion of the estimated $6 billion shortfall the program is facing due to increased college enrollment (approximately 800,000 more students have applied for this program this year compared to last year) and changes in eligibility. All other programs, including education and health care, will be funded at their 2008 levels until appropriations bills are passed in early 2009.

Obey defended the decision to postpone decisions on domestic priorities because President Bush has indicated that he would veto any appropriations bills that exceeded his budget request. “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, “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.”

For their part, Republicans disapproved of the process, which they said denied them the opportunity to properly examine the massive spending measure. “The simple truth is this: Very few people have any idea what’s in [the legislation],” said Lewis. “During this time of economic uncertainty, our constituents are demanding oversight, transparency, and accountability from Wall Street. They deserve the same from Congress.”

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