House committee targets education funding

To deal with the cuts imposed by sequestration, the House Appropriations Committee has chosen to target certain departments—including Education—instead of spreading the cuts across all agencies.

Republicans controlling the House of Representatives pressed ahead May 21 with a plan to slash spending on certain domestic programs—including education—far deeper than the cuts these departments already face under a painful round of automatic austerity.

Military Construction/Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security, and the Pentagon would be spared under the plan approved by the House Appropriations Committee on a party-line vote, but total funding for education, health, and labor programs would absorb a cut of 18 percent below fiscal year 2013 levels adopted in March.

At issue are deep agency budget cuts required under sequestration, or the automatic, across-the-board reductions triggered when lawmakers were unable to agree on alternative ways to curb the deficit. This year, the cuts are being applied to domestic agencies and the Pentagon equally; the budget plan approved by the House on May 21 is for the 2014 budget year and restores cuts to the military while making cuts to domestic programs favored by Democrats—including education—even deeper.

(Next page: More details about the plan)

The plan lacks specifics, but it focuses the biggest cuts on a huge domestic spending bill that funds aid to local school districts, health research, and enforcement of labor laws, among other areas.

Capitol Hill’s budget would be untouched, however. House GOP leaders, who have boasted recently of their efforts to cut Congress’ generous budget, opted against cutting further below levels imposed under the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts that began taking effect in March. In fact, the House would get a 1.6-percent budget increase when measured against current levels.

The foreign aid budget would be sharply cut as well, while a bill funding the IRS budget and implementation of new financial regulations would absorb a 20-percent cut from levels approved just two months ago.

The panel’s 12 funding bills make up the approximately $1 trillion portion of the $3.6 trillion federal budget that passes Congress each year in the form of day-to-day operating budgets for agencies. This so-called discretionary portion of the budget is moving through the Appropriations committees in an increasingly arduous path that bears little resemblance to the way Congress is supposed to do its work.

Under a 2011 budget deal, the panel was supposed to receive about $1.06 trillion for the 12 appropriations bills; the House panel instead is stuck with $967 billion under the so-called sequestration imposed as punishment for Washington’s inability to follow up the 2011 deal with further deficit cuts.

“This is going to be a tough year,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky. “The guillotine of sequestration has fallen, and I think we all agree that its consequences have been, and will continue to be, very harmful.”

To deal with the cuts imposed by sequestration, the House committee has chosen to target certain departments instead of spreading the cuts across all agencies. Its allocation for discretionary Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services spending is $121.8 billion in FY14, down from about $150B in FY13.

The panel’s move came as Democrats and Republicans remain sharply apart on broader budget issues like taxes. Top Senate Democrats and a handful of sympathetic Republicans tried in futility May 21 to take steps to create a House-Senate negotiating panel on these broader issues and curb the rising costs of benefit programs like Medicare and food stamps, whose budgets are mostly on autopilot. But tea party Republicans, such as Rand Paul of Kentucky, are blocking the Senate from moving to create a so-called conference committee.

Action on a broader but nonbinding budget blueprint would give the Appropriations panels of the GOP-controlled House and Democratic Senate a common number to work from. Instead, the Senate panel is drafting far more generous bills that total almost $100 billion above the companion House measures.

Neither the House not Senate are likely to have much luck in advancing the measures very far unless a broader deal is made. Senate Republicans are likely to block bills above the House levels, while the House is unlikely to be able to advance legislation cutting so deeply since Democrats are sure to withhold support.

President Obama last month proposed a budget for FY14 that would increase federal education funding by 4.6 percent. The increases would focus largely on STEM and early childhood education programs.

The stark differences between the president’s plan and that of House GOP leaders sets up another showdown over federal spending this fall. The 2014 fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

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