Monday, March 16, 2009

Budget and Appropriations

After some contentious debate, the Senate adopted the FY 2009 Omnibus Spending bill that combines nine of the 12 appropriations bills At the signing ceremony Tuesday, March 10, President Obama addressed the issue that had made final passage of the budget bill so contentious - earmarks. On the campaign trail, Obama protested the practice of earmarking funds to federal agencies by members of Congress. This $410 billion Omnibus spending bill contains approximately 8,000 earmarks. Many Republicans, and some Democrats, suggested that by signing the bill he was stepping away from a campaign commitment.

Obama saw it differently. He viewed the Omnibus as the last piece of business from the previous administration. In his opinion, the bill was written many months ago and based on a budget prepared and presented by his predecessor. But to the question of earmarks, he made it clear that he wanted to see changes in the system. He wants the process to be more transparent, subject to greater scrutiny and also subject to White House rescission if the administration objects to the content. The signing of the Omnibus signaled the beginning of the FY 2010 budget and appropriations process. Time will tell whether or not the president's goals regarding earmarks will find congressional champions.

The ink of his signature on the FY 2009 spending bill was barely dry when conversation about the FY 2010 budget moved to center stage on Capitol Hill. Hearings were held throughout the week with cabinet secretaries appearing before the House and Senate Budget Committees. In spite of the fact that little budget detail has been made public, John Spratt (D-S.C.), House Budget Committee chairman, invited Arne Duncan, secretary of education, to make his first appearance as a witness before the committee. Needless to say, the conversation was long on goals and rhetoric and short on actual information about spending. It was clear the committee welcomed a secretary who has actually run a school district, who answered questions directly and whose passion and commitment to improving educational opportunities for children everywhere was so apparent.

In his testimony to the House Budget Committee and in answers to the questions that followed, Duncan echoed the remarks of Obama in his first major speech on education policy that had been delivered earlier in the week. Together they hope to start a "race to the top" rather than the bottom, regarding student expectations; inspire the best and the brightest to enter the teaching profession and compensate teachers well enough that they will want to stay; create Early Learning Challenge Grants that will help states expand birth-to-five preschool programs; press states to lift the cap on the number of charter schools in hopes of inspiring innovation; and dramatically increase financial support for college attendance and investment in programs to ensure student success. It is an extraordinarily ambitious plan that will test the new president and his secretary's talents of persuasion on Capitol Hill and across the nation. Coming on the heels of the enormous stimulus bill, it can only mean good news for education advocates.

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