Federal Dateline

Funding Caught in the Crosshairs

by Mary Kusler

Appropriations have never been an easy part of the federal policy process. At no time is that more true than when Congress and the president are from opposing parties.

That was the case as the Hill completed its funding bills before the first session of the 110th Congress drew to a close. Unfortunately, the FY 2008 (2008-09 school year) education appropriations bill was caught in the crosshairs of a high-stakes political game.

The whole process began a year ago when the president proposed his FY 2008 budget. In that budget plan, President Bush laid out for the third consecutive year a plan that would dramatically cut funding to education. Not only were program eliminations suggested, such as Title V of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, but massive cuts were raised, including a hefty $291 million reduction to the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.

The president’s budget would have had a profoundly negative impact on schools around the country. Needless to say, the Democratic Congress was not going to let it stand.

A Veto Fulfilled
Shortly thereafter, the education community partnered with the health care and labor communities to seek increases in the overall funding level. As a combined force, education’s advocates pushed for an additional $9 billion in funding for education, health care and labor over President Bush’s proposed funding levels.

The combined education, labor and health care community succeeded in achieving an additional $9 billion in the House funding bill and $7 billion in the Senate funding bill. Both increases were significant and put education on the path to receive the biggest increases received in years. The House bill was considered in July and passed by a comfortable margin of almost two-thirds of all members. The Senate bill in October earned a strong vote of support when 76 senators voted favorably.

As the bill went to conference committee to work out the differences between the House and the Senate versions, President Bush voiced his intent to veto the funding legislation. At $9 billion over his proposed levels for education, health and labor programs, he considered the congressionally authored bill an example of egregious overspending on domestic programs.

The conference report drew majority support in the House, but in the Senate 18 Republican senators switched their vote after initially supporting the bill. This change of heart surprised many of us as it depicted a lack of support for the congressional spending plan and a bow to presidential pressure.

Within days of the FY 2008 Labor, HHS and Education appropriations conference report being sent to the president, he vetoed it, almost as if on cue. Two days later the House of Representatives scheduled a vote to override the veto. Despite a massive outpouring of grassroots activity from AASA members, other educators and those in the health care community, the veto override failed by just two votes. There is no way we could have gotten that close without the enormous support and effort of AASA’s Legislative Corps and entire membership.

Congress immediately went back to work on a plan that would have split the difference between what they wanted and what the president wanted. However, shortly after pursuing this strategy, it became clear the president would once again veto this funding plan. Instead of putting pressure on the president and making him veto the spending bill again, Democrats went back to the drawing board.

Political Games
In the end, the Democrats agreed to stick to the president’s overall funding level for discretionary spending, $22 billion below what they originally wanted, but they promised to fund Democratic priorities and Congressional earmarks. AASA was incredibly disappointed to see the continued inclusion of earmarks despite proposed cuts to education programs.

The final bill contained a $1.9 billion increase for education, down from the $3.2 billion originally proposed. Title I would receive a $1.2 billion increase, while IDEA would only receive a boost of $259 million, leaving it at just 17.3 percent of the promised 40 percent. Title V, the Education Innovative Block Grant, was eliminated as proposed in the president’s budget. Reading First was cut by 60 percent and Safe and Drug Free Schools was slated for a large rollback.

On top of all of these changes, the entire bill was subjected to a 1.74 percent across-the-board cut. This means that most of the programs in the U.S. Department of Education are funded below last year’s spending levels.

This was not where we thought education funding would end up this year. However, it was politics that got in the way. Of greatest concern to AASA is that while political games were being played here in Washington, students and school districts everywhere else will be feeling the effects when school starts next fall.

Mary Kusler is assistant director of government relations at AASA. E-mail: mkusler@aasa.org