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Washington, D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams is on Capitol Hill this week, making the case for school vouchers for District school kids. D.C. schools receive perhaps the highest per pupil funding in the nation, yet their test scores are among the worst. It's time to give low-income students an opportunity to escape failing schools. It's great to see the Democratic Mayor Williams, who only recently announced his support for the idea of school choice, lead the charge against teachers' unions and a public school bureaucrats. We can only hope that the Senate follows his lead-- we've heard disturbing reports that key senators are wavering in their support of school choice now that it appears that a bill may actually become law. (President Bush is a strong leader on school choice and will sign the bill). Negotiations are still under way in the Senate Appropriations Committee, which is working on its version of the D.C. appropriations bill.
While the Senate vacillates, the House continues to try to find ways to pass a school choice program. This week the House is considering its version of the D.C. spending bill, H. R. 2765, which already allocates $10 million to freedom scholarships to allow kids to attend private schools. On a parallel track, on July 10th the Government Reform Committee passed the bill to authorize creation of the scholarships program. In order to get this done this year, this "authorizing language" passed by the Government Reform Committee needs to be folded in to the D.C. spending bill. Combining the bills will probably happen as an amendment on the House floor this week, so get ready for another big battle over competition and the public-school monopoly.
Congress continues to redefine the term " emergency " to mean simply "more new spending". Earlier this summer, the president requested a $1.89 billion emergency supplemental spending bill. This is spending that occurs outside of the normal budget process, because it is supposed to meet a sudden and unforeseen need. The current "emergency" bill is pretty cynical, though, because it is spending that is not really an emergency: the bill contains funding for the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) and also money to help fight forest fires. These expenses are fairly consistent year after year (we have fires and hurricanes every year), and the budget allocation should include funding for FEMA in the annual budget resolution.
No matter what you think about FEMA, there's no excuse for the latest Congressional actions on the bill. The Senate added hundred million dollars for a program, Americorps, that has nothing to do with emergencies and needs to be terminated, not expanded. AmeriCorps is wrought with waste and is not a program that we should be increasing the national debt to fund.
Our hope is that the House of Representatives, where Republican leaders have no love for the Clinton-founded Americorps program, will strip this extra $100 million in spending. Unfortunately, our vote-counters on the Hill tell us that a majority of the House of Representatives actually supports more deficit spending for Americorps. So, some type of deal seems likely, and taxpayers will lose another battle as the "emergency" supplemental appropriations bill climbs well over the $2 billion mark.
Medicare and the Prescription Drug Benefit
The way Congress often does business is to pass some type of bill in both the House in the Senate, and then do much of the actual legislating behind-the-scenes in what is called a Conference Committee. A Conference Committee consists of specially appointed leadership Members from both the House and Senate, as well as their staff. They all meet to hammer out the details, and it's where a lot of horsetrading and arm wrestling occur. Usually, legislative affairs representatives from the White House are also involved to make sure that the final outcome will be something that the President also supports. Citizens for a Sound Economy will sometimes participate in this process by writing a letter to the Conferees, which we recently did on Medicare. Our letter lays out some of the problems with the current approach on Medicare reform, and our principles for approving the bill as part in this process .
The President clearly wants a Medicare bill this year, and it doesn't seem like he is willing to put up a big fight on principles, especially after Congress shot down his truly groundbreaking Medicare proposals last winter. Still, this puts a lot of pressure on Congress to just pass anything. The Senate approach is clearly worse than the House approach, but right now neither plan creates enough immediate competition within Medicare to justify passage.
Usually, in terms of pro-freedom public policy, bills get worse in conference committee. The main hope that we have a Medicare is that there are about 70 or so Republicans in the House Representatives who have promised to vote down the Medicare bill if the Conference Committee doesn't include enough reform. There's so much at stake, from the hundreds of billions of dollars in new spending, to creating trillions of dollars of new liabilities for taxpayers, to expanding the role of government in our health care system, that we really hope Congress and the President will slow down and do this right.