Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Legislative Update

Last week, Congress seemed almost exclusively focused on the management - or mismanagement - of federal bailout funds and the propriety of bonuses paid to AIG executives. There were hearings, protests, rants on the House and Senate floors and even the overwhelming passage of a bill meant to punish recipients of the bonuses, although experts are already questioning the constitutionality of that measure. Against that backdrop, education issues didn't win much attention, although a fair amount happened, including the House passage of the GIVE Act.

Democrats are busily putting together federal spending plans for FY 2010, and say they intend to pursue President Obama's budget priorities, despite new Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projections that show deeper budget deficits than expected, resulting primarily from a worsening economic situation. The House and Senate Budget Committees usually use CBO's numbers in drafting their congressional budget resolutions, which they are expected to release next week. These resolutions will provide the "big number" for domestic discretionary spending and serve as the basis for the funds allocated to the various Appropriations subcommittee chairs to craft their proposals.

Democrats acknowledge that bad news on the deficit front will warrant changes to the White House's budget proposal, but they remain committed to Obama's priorities. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said, "The priorities in the Obama budget we will pass. Those priorities are making sure we do something about energy, health care and education and making sure that the middle class of America is rejuvenated." Not surprisingly, Republicans continue to criticize Obama's budget. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) sent the White House a video in response to its request for bipartisan budget proposals, promising that Republicans will develop an alternate budget proposal and saying, in part, "Republicans are eager to offer better solutions on the budget. Mr. President, with all due respect: your budget spends too much, taxes too much and borrows too much and that's going to do further harm to our economy at a time when it desperately needs our help."

Meanwhile House Budget Committee chair John Spratt (D-S.C.) was brokering negotiations between leadership and the fiscally conservative Blue Dogs, who were critical of what they considered excessive spending in the FY 2009 omnibus bill. He also was working with colleagues on the parameters and potential content of any budget reconciliation measure considered this year, as well as how to address Obama's desire, supported by the higher education community, to move the Pell Grant program to the mandatory side of the federal ledger.

While party leaders were trading rhetoric, the House Labor, Health and Human Services and Education Appropriations Subcommittee hosted dozens of witnesses for a day of public witness testimony on the FY 2010 spending plan on Wednesday. The list of witnesses shows a majority of them testified on health care and health research matters, and reports are that there wasn't much to report on the annual exercise. Perhaps a more exciting event this week was Michelle Obama's effort to dispatch a number of female celebrities to Washington, D.C.-area high schools.

The pressure of a looming recess will descend on lawmakers this week as the budget committees mark up their respective budget resolutions and other pieces of legislation look for action before the spring recess, which is scheduled to begin in two weeks.


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