Gulf between authorizations and appropriations hurts programs
Congress promised the neediest college students that they would each receive $5,800 in Pell Grants to help pay their education costs this year. But instead, Congress ponied up only $4,050 per student.
How can Congress give with one hand and take away with the other? As with much of what happens on Capitol Hill, one hand pays little attention to what the other is doing. The 1998 Higher Education Act amendments that reauthorized the Pell Grant program called for providing $5,800 to the neediest students for the 2003-2004 school year. But congressional appropriators set aside only $4,050.
The problem is at least partly systemic. Authorizing committees with expertise in their particular areas write legislation creating programs and calling for certain amounts of money to fund them. Oftentimes, these authorizing bills are approved with great fanfare by members of Congress and the president. The public and the media pay less attention to what happens later in the process, when the Appropriations committees decide how much money to actually spend on programs in the 13 annual spending bills. Appropriators have limited pots of money to divvy up. And much of the time, the money appropriated for a program is far less than the amount first promised.
In the process, key federal initiatives can be stymied. For instance, following the voting problems of the 2000 election, Congress passed the 2002 Help America Vote Act. The legislation promised to provide states $2.16 billion in fiscal 2003 to revamp outdated voting systems, but Congress appropriated only $1.5 billion. The shortfall generated bad publicity, followed by intensive lobbying by election-reform proponents. So, in the pending fiscal 2004 omnibus appropriations bill, Congress provided the full $1.5 billion that experts said was needed to catch up. But Doug Chapin, director of the nonprofit Election Reform Information Project, said the money will come too late to help significantly fix voting procedures for this year's election.
Congress creates an "expectation" when it passes a high-profile authorization bill, said G. William Hoagland, budget and appropriations aide to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. "It has taken on new attention in this day of unfunded mandates," he said. "There are a lot of authorizations that are not funded."
Appropriators contend that authorizing committees promise unrealistic amounts of money, since they don't have to balance funding for their programs against the other priorities that the Appropriations Committees must confront. Authorizers "do a big dog and pony show, but when it comes to the top line, we have open warfare about what the top line will be," James Dyer, staff director of the House Appropriations Committee, told National Journal last year.
Congressional Democrats acknowledge a long-standing disconnect between authorizations and appropriations. But they contend that the gulf between what is promised when programs are created versus the actual funding levels is much wider in the all-GOP government than it was when Democrats ran the show.
"It's spectacularly broader," House Appropriations Committee ranking member David Obey, D-Wis., told National Journal last year. "It has a helluva lot more to do with who leads the House than it does with process." Obey and other Democrats contend that Republicans are prone to slash funding for key programs to keep within conservative budget constraints and to account for the revenue lost from the Bush tax cuts.
Republicans respond that nothing is new. For instance, Congress failed to fully fund the Pell Grants during the 1993-94 and 1994-95 school years, when Democrats were in charge. In addition, while Congress and President Ford enacted a 1975 law pledging to pay 40 percent of the cost of programs to educate disabled children each year, that goal has never been reached. In fiscal 2003, the federal government provided only 18 percent of all special-education funds.
This election year, Republicans are sure to tout passage of the 2002 No Child Left Behind education law, which called for reforms such as student testing and better teacher training. But Democrats complain that Republicans haven't lived up to the promised funding levels.
Democrats contend that the fiscal 2004 omnibus spending bill shortchanges the No Child Left Behind Act by some $7.5 billion. "Republican-passed legislation abandons those promised resources, and the impact on students and teachers is devastating," House Education and the Workforce Committee ranking member George Miller, D-Calif., said in a report last month.
Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee ranking member Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., went even further, telling The Washington Post last month that Bush "clearly" lied to Democrats who supported the bill. "The president had indicated not only to me, but to [other Democrats], that we would have not only reform, but the funds to implement it," Kennedy told the newspaper.
But Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Education Committee, disputed the Democrats' claim. "There was never any discussion about fully funding to the authorized levels," Boehner said on the House floor in December. "The commitment was to adequately fund our efforts to renew American schools."
NEXT STORY: OPM praises agencies for hiring more veterans