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Education in the
Lame Duck Congress
By Karen R. Effrem, MD
 EdWatch Director of Government Relations

November 19, 2010


The US Congress is back in session to deal with the federal budget and decide the fate of the Bush tax cuts, both of which the Democrats in control were too afraid to tackle before the election.  According to EdWatch's congressional sources, what will happen with the federal budget is anyone's guess.  There are three main possibilities.

1)      Continuing Resolution (CR) - This would continue spending at current levels until some specified time in the future, probably leaving the thorny budget issues for the next Congress to solve.  Republicans would like that because it would then leave them free to enact the fiscal discipline for which they were elected. Given that the defeated House Democrat caucus would have to relinquish control early and actually vote for fiscal responsibility, this seems unlikely. The federal government is currently being funded by a CR, because the new fiscal year started on October 1st.  The current CR is set to expire on December 3rd.

2)      Passing Each Individual Budget Bills - Given that there are twelve such budget bills that often contain controversial amendments, that these bills are large and complex and comprise trillions of dollars of federal spending, and that Congress will adjourn this session two weeks after Thanksgiving week after not dealing with these bills for eleven months, we also see this possibility as farfetched.

3)      Omnibus Bill - In our view, an omnibus bill that combines all of the budget bills and funds the federal budget for the next fiscal year is the most likely. This tends to be the method of choice when control of Congress switches parties or when there is a lot of controversy about spending. The biggest question is at what level will the Democrats in control of Congress set the spending?  Because of their big spending ways and delusional denial regarding the anger of the American people at their profligate spending and over regulation, we are not optimistic that spending in a bill like this will be cut. There is also a big risk of controversial issues to be tossed in because members of Congress are less likely to vote against the entire bill.

There is possible good news for those seeking a reduction in out of control federal spending. The Republicans, as evidenced by statements from incoming majority leader Eric Cantor, seem to be ready to cut in the next session whatever spending the Democrats devise in this lame duck session by a method called rescissions bills.  He explains this in a letter he wrote to incoming House members:

"In 1995, the new Republican majority brought forward a rescission bill to rollback excessive spending. Rather than one bill, however, it is my goal to bring forward a series of rescissions bills as your Majority Leader. Each of which would be open for amendment to reduce spending even further. In 1995, the House considered five floor amendments to provide additional reductions in spending. Given the rapid increases in spending over the past several years and the fact that we have largely been precluded from offering amendments to spending bills, I suspect there will be great interest in offering proposals to cut excessive spending.

I believe this approach - a series of rescissions bills under an open amendment process - will provide House Republicans the opportunity not only to demonstrate our commitment to fiscal discipline, but also to highlight the simple fact that government spending exploded in the last Congress."

The Labor/HHS/Education budget bill is the largest bill in the federal budget because it contains the most discretionary spending and all of the entitlement bills.  To get an idea of where the President, House, and Senate stand on the various budget items in education, you can look at the summaries from the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. In almost every case, except for Race to the Top, the House proposes to spend less or the same as the president and the Senate seeks to spend more. Most items in this entire budget bill show increased spending over last year or at worst the same as last year.  It is the rare instance when the congressional appropriators try to spend less or try to eliminate a program.  Here are a few highlights of education items of particular interest to those that care about education freedom:

         Race to the Top - This is the $4 billion federal competitive grant program slipped into the federal stimulus bill about which EdWatch has been warning since July of 2009.  It seeks to establish a federal curriculum by moving to establish and require internationally benchmarked national standards and assessments, increase the already intrusive collection of private family and student education data, and promote the expansion of ineffective, intrusive and expensive early childhood programs.  The president asked for $1.35 billion for the next year, while the House committee appropriated $800 million, and the Senate wants to spend $675 million.  Fortunately, incoming House Education Committee chairman John Kline understands all of the problems with this program and does not want to fund it at all. So if it is funded, hopefully it can be rescinded in the next Congress.

         21st Century Community Learning Centers - This is the program that seeks to have schools be involved in every aspect of student and family life from breakfast, childcare, preschool, parent education, workforce development, all through and after the school day.  This program is the fulfillment of Montgomery County Maryland school official Edwin Broome's prediction way back in 1946 when he said, "The end results are that the school makes itself indispensable to all phases of community life.  In the future development of school programs, the service program will receive increasing emphasis until the school becomes in fact the agency to which all people in the community turn for assistance." (Emphasis added.) The president asks for $1.17 billion while the House asks for $1.20 billion and the Senate seeks $1.27 billion. Hopefully the Republicans can get rid of this one as well. 

         Head Start - This federal early childhood education program that also does invasive home visits and mental health screening along with medical and dental care was shown in yet another of over 600 taxpayer funded studies to be ineffective past the first grade and harmful to the math skills of three year old children as well as being fraudulent.  This program should be abolished.  Yet, the president and Senate seek to increase funding by nearly one billion dollars to $8.22 billion, while the House is asking for $8.10 billion.

         Early Childhood Challenge Grants - This was $9 billion of new spending in an attempt by the Obama administration to expand federal involvement in early childhood education during the federal takeovers of health care and student loans.  Fortunately, even the administration realized this spending was over the top.  The House is not requesting any funding for this program. Yet, despite all of the evidence showing either ineffectiveness and academic and emotional harm of early childhood programs, the Senate is actually wanting to spend $300 million the nation does not have to still try to implement yet another federal education program

It is important to pay attention to what happens during this lame duck session, because they are infamous for allowing huge spending increases and controversial programs and provisions in addition to the fact the federal spending, the deficit and the national debt are all out of control.  If the Democrats still in charge of Congress remain as tone deaf as they were during the rest of this congress, it will also be important to hold the Republicans accountable in the next Congress to undo as much of this spending as possible.

Note:  Dr. Karen Effrem was interviewed about federal education issues by Diane Gramley of the American Family Association of Pennsylvania.  That interview may be accessed here.
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