In the first two weeks after Hurricane Katrina devastated much of the Gulf Coast, Congress passed $62.3 billion in disaster relief through a pair of supplemental spending bills that are widely viewed as the first down payment for rebuilding efforts that could cost up to $200 billion. As these numbers begin to add up, many conservatives in Congress are asking for offsets, or spending cuts, for this unexpected spending. As a result, existing programs under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Education, as well as those of other agencies, could see cuts.
The conservative Republican Study Committee has garnered most of the headlines over the past few weeks with its “Operation Offset,” a list of spending cuts that would save $370 billion over the next five years to help pay for hurricane relief. To date, the list of programs, which includes everything from reducing foreign aid to delaying the new Medicare prescription drug program for one year and reopening the recently passed highway bill to strip out $26 billion in “pork projects,” has garnered little support from either the White House or the Republican leadership.
Nevertheless, Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN), chairman of the ninety-plus-member committee, has vowed to press ahead with his group’s list of spending cuts to help pay for Katrina reconstruction. However, at a follow-up meeting with the GOP leadership last week, discussion focused on a narrower list of ideas, including “Medicaid, food stamps, welfare reform and the possibility of an across-the-board cut in non-defense, non-homeland-security-related discretionary spending,” according to Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan has suggested that, as an alternative, Congress enact some of the cuts included in Bush’s fiscal year 2006 budget proposal. In his budget, the president proposed ending or cutting 154 federal programs to save at least $20 billion in nondefense discretionary spending. Forty-eight U.S. Department of Education programs, with costs totaling $4.3 billion, were included in that list.
As part of her Back-to-School Address on September 21, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings acknowledged that some education programs might be cut to help pay for the additional spending. “There are things in the Department of Education’s budget and in the federal government generally that the president has called for either trimming or eliminating. We have some programs in our own budget that are not as effective as they could be, that are a better way to do business and so forth. And so those things I’m sure will be on the table as we negotiate with Congress.”
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), the tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003, at $225 billion, will cost more this year alone than the total amount likely to be spent on Katrina relief efforts. “It is ironic that not long after Hurricane Katrina provided vivid images of the wide gaps between wealth and poverty in this nation, a group of lawmakers would propose a deficit-reduction package that relies heavily on cuts in programs that alleviate the worst effects of poverty,” said Robert Greenstein, CBPP’s executive director, in criticizing the committee’s offset proposal.