Every year, the U.S. Congress considers multiple appropriations measures that provide funding for activities and agencies for the next fiscal year, including specific education programs and the U.S. Department of Education. The first step in this lengthy process is the submission by the president of his annual budget for the upcoming fiscal year (see the February 7 issue of Straight A’s for details on this year’s presidential budget request). Next, the Senate and the House of Representatives approve budget “resolutions,” or plans, that serve as blueprints for members of Congress to use as they consider specific spending decisions. The annual congressional budget resolution is not binding, nor is it signed by the president.
On Thursday, March 16, the U.S. Senate narrowly approved its fiscal year 2007 budget resolution, with a final vote of 51 49. The original proposal, submitted to the full Senate for consideration by the Budget Committee, was changed during debate and following a vigorous effort by education and health advocacy organizations to include additional funding for education, labor, and health programs. Enjoying considerable bipartisan support, that amendment passed on a 73-27 vote.
Offered 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, the amendment added $7 billion to the pool of money available for the Departments of Health and Human Services, Education, and Labor, thus restoring funding to the fiscal year 2005 level. Discussing the need for the amendment, Specter cited the drastic cuts to these programs over the last few years: “We have done more than cut out the fat, we have done more than cut through the muscle, we have done more than cut through the bone; we have cut into the marrow,” he said.
Specter cited the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, GEAR UP, and the Perkins Vocational and Technical Education program as examples of some of the programs that could benefit from the additional money. The amendment would also help appropriators avoid cutting other education initiatives such as Striving Readers, Title I, or special education.
“This is not a radical proposal. In fact, it is almost an embarrassingly modest proposal,” Senator Harkin said. “But it is important. It is an important first step. At least we are saying it is enough, no more; it is time to reorder our priorities … President Bush, in his budget, proposed to slash the Labor-Health-Education budget by $4.2 billion for this year. Meanwhile, in Iraq, he is spending nearly $5 billion a month. These are not the priorities of the American people.”
Without the Specter/Harkin amendment, the Departments of Labor, Health, and Education were expected to have had $4.2 billion less to spend on domestic programs than last year.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg (R-NH) spoke against the Specter/Harkin amendment on the Senate floor, noting that the Senate Budget Committee had already taken $3 billion from defense and moved it to the Labor-HHS-Education Committee to be split equally between education and health care. However, appropriators would have still been subject to the president’s overall $873 billion spending cap, which proposes to cut education by $2.1 billion and eliminate 42 education programs, including vocational education, TRIO, GEAR UP, and Smaller Learning Communities.
Senator Specter expressed concern about whether the budget would ultimately reflect the will of Congress to increase support for education and health, saying, “As I have advised the leadership, I have grave doubts about supporting the budget resolution, even with the adoption of this amendment. I put the Republican leadership and the Democratic leadership and the House and the White House and the Presiding Officer, everyone on notice that I will want to see some real assurances that we are dealing with hard money …” After his amendment passed, Specter received assurances from Senator Gregg and Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran (R-MS) that his committee would, in fact, receive and be able to allocate the additional money that the amendment made available.
Budget Resolution Exposes Divide Between House Moderates and Conservatives
On the other side of the Capitol, the House Budget Committee postponed consideration of its version of the budget resolution until the week of March 27. The House version is expected to mirror the president’s overall spending cap of $873 billion, but that does not mean that all House Republicans are happy with it.
On March 8, the Republican Study Committee (RSC), a group of more than 100 House conservatives, released a renewed Contract With America that calls for reducing the federal deficit by nearly $400 billon over 5 years. Their budget proposal for fiscal year 2007 would cut about $1 trillion from the $2.77 trillion plan President Bush released in February. Within education, the RSC plan would cut Title I, and eliminate funding for afterschool and dropout-prevention programs and TRIO, to name only a few.
In contrast, moderate House Republicans are very worried about cuts in spending-especially given that this is an election year. Already,Representative Michael Castle (R-DE) has expressed opposition to the president’s budget, saying that it would continue large spending increases for the Pentagon while squeezing important domestic programs. On March 16, in a letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL), 23 moderate Republicans threatened to oppose the House version of the budget resolution, which is still being developed, unless it includes a 2% increase, or about $8 billion, for domestic discretionary spending.