Monday, January 12, 2009

Legislative Update: Budget and Appropriations

Newly elected and re-elected senators and representatives took the oath of office for the 111th Congress, which convened on Jan. 6, 2008. While most of the press focused on those who were not sworn in for one reason or another - Roland Burris (D) of Illinois and Al Franken (D) and/or Norm Coleman (R) from Minnesota - there were celebrations all over Capitol Hill to mark the occasion.

Those off the Hill were busy planning for the unprecedented crowds that will arrive in the capital city for the historic swearing in Barack Obama. Those not engaged in party planning were busy having conversations about the fragile state of the American economy. Hearings were held before many committees on both sides of the Capitol. Obama met with House and Senate leaders and also gave his first major policy speech in several months on the topic of the economy and the actions his government will be prepared to take to address the crisis. Though Congress had hoped to have a stimulus bill on his desk on inauguration day, it now appears that the target for completion of what is likely to be a trillion-dollar package will be President's Day. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) were both quoted this week saying Congress would not take another recess until work on what is now called the "American Recovery and Reinvestment Act" is complete.

The promise of such an enormous tax-cutting and spending package has prompted every advocacy and interest group imaginable to promote a "vital piece" to include in the plan. A group of governors called on Congress to include $250 billion for general education support to the states. This could pay for everything from early childhood education to full funding for IDEA. College and university presidents are looking for a $6 billion campus infrastructure package plus another $6 billion to increase the size of the maximum Pell Grant award. K-12 advocates, beyond the large block grant, want to see a large portion of the overall infrastructure plan targeted to school construction and renovation. And the list goes on. The needs are enormous, and Nobel Prize-winning economists have convinced a large percentage of legislators that the government must spend its way out of this recession. This debate will dominate congressional activity for the next few weeks.

It is hoped that also during the next few weeks Congress will take final action on the FY 2009 budget, which has been folded into one omnibus spending bill. The $60 billion contained in that legislation for education sounds like a pittance in the context of the current debate about economic recovery.

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