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Capitol Report: March 20, 2013

Capitol ReportBy Della B. Cronin

Sequestration has been with us for just over two weeks now. The world hasn’t ended, but there have been noticeable effects. Universities are concerned about pending or prospective federal research dollars; college students will pay more in origination fees on their next set of federal student loans; governors are seeking guidance from federal agencies on expected dollars of all sorts; and school districts are figuring out what the cuts mean for the next school year—when the impact will really be felt.

As the hand-wringing continues, Congress is pressing forward and taking on other significant budgetary exercises. The federal budget for FY 2013 (the current fiscal year—the one that started way back on October 1, 2012) still hasn’t been finalized. The temporary spending bill now funding federal programs will expire March 27. The House and Senate are expected to reach an agreement on FY 2013 spending in the next week or so, but this delay could make the sequester’s required across-the-board cuts feel deeper than they are. The delay in setting this budget meant a delay in implementing the cuts. With the fiscal year about half over, the cuts will have to fit into a shorter period, meaning they could be felt more than they would had the budget cycle been completed in a timely manner.

Then, the president and Congress are trying to come up with a spending plan for FY 2014—the fiscal year that begins October 1, 2013. Leaders of the House and Senate budget committees have come up with two very different plans. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) argues that his plan would put the country on the “path to prosperity.” It would require significant budget cuts, as well as tax reforms that would, he argues, substantially reduce the deficit. Education advocates argue that the Ryan plan would irreparably harm children, students, schools, libraries, and colleges and would undermine job creation, economic growth, and global competitiveness. Are you ready for some math? Overall, the Ryan plan would cut nondefense discretionary spending over 10 years by nearly $1 trillion below the caps established in the Budget Control Act and by $554 billion below the post-sequester caps. The plan then locks in these cuts for the next nine years. It would cut education funding significantly.

Over in the Senate, new Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) has proposed some different math. Her plan includes $100 billion in stimulus spending on infrastructure projects, $975 billion in new tax revenue through cutting expenditures, $493 billion in domestic cuts, and $240 billion in defense cuts—all over 10 years. The Murray plan would also save $242 billion in interest payments, adding up to a $1.85 trillion package of deficit reduction, split evenly between taxes and spending cuts. Her plan doesn’t detail education plans but would treat those investments more generously than does the House proposal, which proposes no tax increases, no stimulus spending, much more in spending cuts, and a much faster deficit reduction.

And, while your head is still spinning, get ready for another FY 2014 budget plan: The White House budget request is already about six weeks late, and April 8 looks to be the earliest anyone can expect it to arrive on Capitol Hill. The plan will be different from the Murray and Ryan budgets. Although the details are probably still being finalized, the plan is expected to propose substantial investments in STEM education, including a new STEM Master Teacher Corps plan. NCTM leadership has met with White House officials to discuss this plan and has conveyed support for the concept while noting longtime support for established programs helping math educators across the country.

All these budget machinations are stealing headlines in Washington. However, on a party line vote last week, the House reauthorized one of the many pieces of education legislation up for renewal: a proposal to consolidate several programs in the Workforce Investment Act and block grant funds to states. Although the bill itself has little chance of passing the Senate and being signed into law, the process does not bode well for cooperation between the two parties on other large, complicated pieces of education policy awaiting action. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act is at the top of the list, for sure, but could stay there a while longer.

Della B. Cronin is with Washington Partners, LLC

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