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War Adds to Concern About Bleak Budget

War Adds to Concern About Bleak Budget
Lawmakers worry war costs may affect education funding
By Charles Dervarics

While most federal lawmakers are supporting the U.S. troops in Iraq, the issue of who pays for the second Gulf war — and the implications for education — is emerging as a source of mounting concern on Capitol Hill.

Both chambers of the U.S. Congress last month passed 2004 budget plans and authorized tax cuts without an estimate of the war’s cost from the administration. A few days later President Bush asked Congress for $75 billion to cover the cost of the current military operation.

The budget issue spilled over onto the House floor in late March, as GOP leaders sought and received a vote in support of the Bush budget. Dissenting Democrats assailed the plan for including tax cuts but no budget estimate for the on-going military operation.

“That is disingenuous, it is wrong, and it is unfair to the American people,” said Rep. Harold Ford, D-Tenn.

Republican leaders countered that it was too soon to develop reliable budget estimates on the war, but that the current economic climate requires belt-tightening. “We have been increasing spending steadily,” said Rep. Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, House budget committee chairman, noting the steady education increases after the nation posted a surplus in the late 1990s. Now, however, “we are in deficit and we have to do something about it.”

For education advocates, one troubling sign is contained in the fine print of the House budget resolution. The plan would require cuts of nearly $10 billion in student loan and child nutrition programs — two politically popular and usually untouchable areas.

While any year’s budget debate features early discussions that are subject to change, lawmakers’ willingness to take on such issues has caught educators’ attention.

The House plan was crafted “with no regard to the bleak overall fiscal situation the nation faces,” says Dr. David Ward, president of the American Council on Education. The potential cut in access to loan programs is just one of several objectionable provisions. “This resolution is extremely shortsighted and unbalanced.”

After viewing the total package, including tax cuts, a group of education associations urged lawmakers to oppose the plan.

“This is not the time for the federal government to curtail its investments in programs that contribute so much to America’s future strength and prosperity,” said the letter signed by ACE, UNCF and other education groups.

One other contentious issue in the House budget is a 1 percent across-the-board cut affecting virtually all programs. Democrats charge that move alone could cut the maximum Pell grant and other programs. Republicans counter the plan builds in flexibility so lawmakers and agencies could target waste, fraud and abuse to meet the budget targets.

With their own concerns about the Bush budget plan, Black Caucus members proposed an alternative that would freeze tax cuts and provide $20 billion more for education. Programs such as Title I, Head Start, Black colleges and Hispanic-serving institutions would receive more funds under this plan.

Sponsors of this plan also blasted the administration’s reluctance to include war costs in budget planning.

“You cannot separate the budget from the discussions of war and peace,” said Rep. Major Owens, D-N.Y. He said his fear is that Congress and the White House may “place the burden of this war on the backs of the poorest people.”

The Black Caucus budget failed on a vote of 340 to 85, which cleared the way for approval of the Bush plan. Lawmakers will use these plans to set program-by-program spending for the fiscal year that begins in October.

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