On September 29, Congress approved $70 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of a record $447.6 billion defense spending bill. It included within that bill a stopgap spending resolution that enabled members to put off making a decision on funding for the U.S. Department of Education until after Election Day.
In the House of Representatives, two issues—a disagreement over funding levels and a provision to increase the minimum wage—are holding up consideration of the Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS), and Education spending bill. With no Democrats likely to support the bill, it will need near unanimous support from Republican members in order to pass.
In May, House moderates received a pledge from House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) for an additional $7 billion for the Departments of Labor, HHS, and Education in exchange for their support on the congressional budget resolution. In a letter to Boehner on September 27, Representative Mike Castle (R-DE) and twenty-three other House Republican moderates renewed their push for the additional funding. Currently, the House version of the Labor, HHS, Education spending bill is approximately $3 billion short of meeting the pledge.
“As Fiscal Year 2006 (FY06) winds down, we remain particularly concerned about the final funding level for the FY07 Labor, HHS, Education Appropriations bill, which the House has not yet considered,” the letter reads. “We are writing to respectfully remind you of the agreement to provide no less than $7 billion above the [president’s budget] request. … We strongly support fulfilling this agreement before the end of the legislative year.”
In addition to the disagreement over spending, the House bill also contains a provision that would increase the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7.25 by January 2009. This issue is a big one for many moderate Republicans, several of whom are facing heated reelection contests. However, it now appears that they can avoid casting a vote on the issue until after the election.
Although the Senate version of the bill does not contain the minimum wage increase, a similar debate over spending levels has held up the bill’s consideration. In March, the Senate passed an amendment by Senators Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Tom Harkin (D-IA), the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee, which added $7 billion to the pool of money available for the Departments of Health and Human Services, Education, and Labor. The amendment, which enjoyed considerable bipartisan support, passed on a 73–27 vote.
In July, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a bill that would provide the U.S. Department of Education with $55.8 billion in discretionary spending for FY 2007, a decrease of $150 million from last year and a cut of $780 million from FY 2005—the high watermark for federal education funding. During that markup, Senator Specter criticized the lack of funds for domestic priorities. He said that the bill “[constitutes] what I view as really the disintegration of the appropriate federal role in health, education, and worker protections.”
Earlier this month, Senators Specter and Harkin began circulating a letter to Senate and Appropriations Committee leaders asking for the full funding committed to in March. At the end of last week, fifty-two senators, including ten Republicans, had signed onto the letter.
“Millions of needy American families and students rely on the vital services and assistance funded through the Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill,” the letter reads. “We feel strongly that the funding we provide in this bill reflects an investment in the human infrastructure of our nation. At a time when the demand for job training and education is critical to maintain America’s competitiveness, and when the cost of health care and access to quality care are major issues for many Americans, we simply cannot afford to cut funding for health care and education. These cuts move our country in the wrong direction.”
Looking Ahead: Flurry of Action Possible After Election Day
With the stopgap spending resolution, also called a continuing resolution, set to expire on November 17, Congress will need to return after the election and make a final decision on the ten spending bills that have yet to be signed into law.1 While many observers believe that the education bill will be combined with bills for other agencies as part of a larger “omnibus” spending bill, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-CA) and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran (R-MS) have said that they would prefer to move bills individually.
Last week, House Majority Leader Boehner said that he would like to complete any unfinished appropriations work during the lame-duck session in November. “We have got to have some answers on how we complete the appropriations process,” he said. “I do not want the appropriations process to carry over into next year; it just delays action on next year’s work.”
House Democrats were quick to criticize the decision to delay action on the remainder of the appropriations bills until after the election. “They prefer to push it past the election so that there will be no accountability for most of the actions taken by Congress on the domestic portion of the budget,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-WI).
1) In addition to the spending bill for the Department of Defense, Congress passed the Homeland Security spending bill last week.