Federal Dateline

The Power of Combined Grassroots

by Mary Kusler

If you ever wondered whether phone calls and personal visits to members of Congress make a difference, look no further than the effort to increase funding for domestic programs over the past year.

The 110th Congress started in January with a tremendous victory, the culmination of a year-long effort to increase support for education, health care and labor programs. This success would not have been possible without pressure from school system leaders and health care advocates from across the country.

A year earlier, President Bush introduced his budget for FY 2007 (2007-08 school year) by proposing the largest cut to education in the history of the U.S Department of Education, $2.1 billion or 3.8 percent. This attack on the funding of domestic programs upset members on both sides of the aisle.

Because education is funded at the federal level from the same bill as health care and labor through the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, these programs compete against each other for their share of dollars. If the overall proposed allocation to the committee is smaller, it will likely cause even deeper cuts in all three areas.

A Unified Message
Members of Congress banded together to help increase funding and show their displeasure with the president’s proposal. Led by the efforts of Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Arlen Specter, R-Pa., a chant grew to increase funding for education, health care and labor programs by $7 billion over the president’s proposal. Although this seemed like a big increase in one year, in reality it would only bring education funding back to its FY 2005 level. Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del., helped organized the Republican moderates in the House to call for the increased funding.

Through the encouragement of Harkin, school system leaders, teachers, parents and health care advocates from across the country banded together with a single message: Increase funding for critical domestic programs. This was the first time this diverse community came together with a common message, and throughout the year we were able to see how powerfully the combined education and health care grassroots can function together.

Early on, the joint efforts were able to score a big victory when 73 senators voted for an amendment to increase funding for education and health care programs by the promised $7 billion. While we at AASA anticipated winning the amendment, this victory was by a larger margin than we could have planned. The vote was attributed to the overwhelming pressure from the grassroots, including school system leaders. Ultimately, Congress failed to complete a budget and left us to fight for the additional funding through the general appropriations process.

Unfortunately the funding allocation given to the Labor, HHS and Education Appropriations Subcommittee was not as generous as AASA had hoped. In the House, the subcommittee received only $4.1 billion over the president’s budget proposal and the Senate received only $5 billion. With both bills still short of their desired funding levels, they had to be written to include cuts to education and health care programs. However, the politics of an election year did not let Congress complete most of the appropriations bills. Few members wanted to be on record voting for cuts to critical domestic programs. Completing these funding bills was left to the new Congress.

Funding Triumph
The 110th Congress convened in January 2007 under new Democratic leadership and the need to complete the unfinished business from the previous Congress. The broader education and health care grassroots groups got together for one last joint effort to reach the full $7 billion.

The new incoming chairs of the Appropriations Committees, Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., and Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., decided to eliminate all earmarks from the remaining appropriations bills. This successfully freed up money and allowed the new chairs to award an additional $2.3 billion for education, health care and labor. The joint grassroots effort could claim victory for the full $7 billion.

This funding triumph would not have been possible without the active engagement of school system leaders nationwide. Having the same message as health care advocates made us even stronger.

We will need to use our joint efforts with the health care community once again over the coming year. Though party leadership in Congress has changed, the fiscal picture has not improved. Another push will be needed this year to ensure that priorities such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and Title I receive their needed increases. But with persistent grassroots activity from school administrators, the efforts can really pay off.

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