Federal Dateline

Congress’ Classic Choice: ‘Guns or Butter’

by Bruce Hunter

The 109th Congress followed the path of all legislative bodies, remaining in session as long as possible by putting off the toughest decisions until the last days of the session. Originally targeted for adjournment in the first week of October, the Congress finally called it quits a few days before Christmas.

Stalling tough decisions until the last minute means compromises get made because legislators cannot follow the details and fewer legislators are involved in negotiations. Under the last-minute model, the most powerful legislators with the best or largest staffs have more leverage over decisions and those squeaky wheels with little power or seniority can be left out until the end. This means the legislators make decisions on what seems to be in bills and on the basis of spin they get from party leadership.

The first session of the 109th was surprised by Hurricane Katrina and the devastation it rendered in late August. Until Katrina the major federal policy issues were reauthorizing the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act and funding federal programs such as No Child Left Behind and the Individuals, with Disabilities Education Act.

After Katrina, the leading education issue became a search for something $4 and $7 billion to rebuild the 24 Gulf Coast school districts with the most extensive damage and compensate the hundreds of school districts that took in the 372,000 students displaced by the ravaging hurricane.

An Arduous Decision
All of the money decisions this year were going to be tough anyway because the country was facing a classic “guns or butter” economic decision salted by huge tax cuts that decreased federal revenues in the short run. The choice between domestic programs and military support is faced whenever the country goes to war or is threatened as it was in the Cold War years.

That choice has been complicated by supply-side economics that theorize that reducing taxes in the short run produces more wealth in the long run, thus increasing federal revenues. Supply-side economics once were controversial in Washington but now are part of the tax- argument orthodoxy for a majority of the members of Congress.

However, in the short run federal revenues are down and the deficit is up because defense spending to fight the war in Iraq is up so dramatically. For a few years the deficit was not viewed as a problem, but now domestic spending is under great pressure. President Bush tried to reduce entitlement spending by changing Social Security, but that effort failed and Congress added to Medicare costs with new prescription drug benefits. Something had to give and it is education spending.

Delayed Action
Because cutting education support is poor politics, it was left until the last days of the Congress to address, and the unexpected and unbudgeted need for Katrina-related education aid has been even harder to accomplish.

In fact, the only seemingly easy chore on the education legislation docket, reauthorization of the Perkins Career and Technical Education program, also has been unfinished because of wrangling among the administration, House Republicans and Senate Republicans. Both the House and Senate passed bills that made few changes in the current program, but the changes they made were controversial. The administration that had sought to completely change the Perkins program to high school reform whiffed completely on the reauthorization so they weren’t happy with either the House or Senate bill.

In addition Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, threatened to gut the e rate program and make it into a discretionary grant program or simply eliminate it.

Emerging Champions
Talk about a bad year. For those who lead school systems, nothing positive occurred because nothing of consequence was finished. Halting the elimination of E-rate and getting the discounts flowing again were the few plusses. Katrina aid remained up in the air until a couple of days before Christmas with the diminished funds tilted toward students in private schools. Department of Education funding for the nine titles of NCLB will be down about $1 billion, and funding for IDEA will shrink by about $7 million below last year’s funding — in contrast to the $2.5 billion increase Congress promised just last year.

The funding cuts, as well as the support for Katrina victims, passed in the final helter skelter hours of the first session of the 109th Congress. So the desperate school districts that are trying to restart or that have taken in hundreds or thousands of displaced students will get some operating capital.

Congress, acting like Scrooge, pulled hundreds of millions of dollars from the stockings of our nation’s public school children.

The first session of the 109th has been dismal, mean and cantankerous from start to finish.

Yet real rays of hope remain. A new champion of public schools, Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., has emerged. Enzi, chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, demonstrates an ability to work well with Democrats and has a strong, honest and open staff.

Another champion, Rep. Judy Biggert, R-Ill., has emerged as an anti-voucher, pro-public school booster who can rally colleagues from both sides of the aisle. These new champions, along with perhaps the growing public disgust with ill-tempered, partisan politics, give hope for civil and thoughtful dialogue over the federal role in education in the future.

Bruce Hunter is associate executive director for public policy at AASA. E-mail: bhunter@aasa.org