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Budget Hit List Tests Loyalty to Programs, Bush

Times Staff Writer

Thad Cochran is conflicted.

In 1990, the senator from Mississippi co-wrote a law establishing the National Writing Project, an Education Department program to help teachers turn elementary and secondary students into better writers.

But now, as the new chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Cochran feels pressure to support President Bush’s request that Congress kill the $20-million-a-year National Writing Project as part of his campaign to crack down on domestic spending.

“I don’t know what I’ll do,” said Cochran, a Republican. “I want to support my president on the deficit, but I owe allegiance to the program too.”

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Education lobbyists have little doubt that Cochran will fight for his program. He always has. For four years running, Bush has proposed killing it; every year, Congress has kept it.

And that explains why Bush’s hit list of 154 programs that he wants to kill or curtail -- a central element of his campaign to rein in the deficit -- faces tough sledding in Congress.

The targeted programs fall in a category called “nonsecurity discretionary spending” -- domestic programs whose spending levels are set in annual appropriations bills. The administration has made much of the fact that its budget would cut this category by 1%, thanks in large measure to the programs on the hit list.

But nonsecurity discretionary spending accounts for about one-sixth of everything the government spends. It misses the Defense Department, which would receive a 4.8% boost under Bush’s budget. And it misses all the “mandatory” spending for federal benefits programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, which would grow by 7%.

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Even if Congress followed through on Bush’s proposal to kill 99 programs and scale back 55 others, the savings would be $15 billion -- about 60 cents for every $100 the government spends.

And Congress will not attack all 154 programs. Many of them have powerful protectors, such as Cochran, who have fought these battles before.

Last year, the administration’s proposed 2005 budget included a similar but shorter list of 65 programs that had cost $4.9 billion the year before. Congress killed four of them, at a savings of $579 million. It also rolled three programs into one -- but boosted the budget by $27 million.

So, for example, Bush repeatedly has proposed eliminating funds to rehabilitate the Alaska Railroad. Congress just as often has provided $25 million a year.

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It is a program well-protected by the state’s powerful Republican senator, Ted Stevens, who preceded Cochran as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and remains a senior member of the panel.

Stevens argues that the railroad is essential to the state’s economy, because only the railroad can move passengers and freight over the state’s rough and remote terrain.

“Railroad is the way we have to do it,” said Courtney Schikora, Stevens’ press secretary. “So clearly, the railroad will continue to be funded.”

Under Bush’s plan, the Education Department would have more programs curtailed than any other: 48, for a savings of $4.3 billion. They include 34 programs that were unsuccessfully singled out for extinction last year.

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The Education Department programs range in size from grants to states for vocational education ($1.2 billion in fiscal 2005) to financial aid for athletes training for the Olympics while in college or graduate school ($1 million). Most have survived previous efforts to kill them, thanks to powerful friends.

Stevens, for example, has formed an unlikely partnership with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) to keep alive a program called Exchanges With Historic Whaling and Trading Partners. It supports cultural activities and apprenticeships in states with whaling traditions -- Alaska, Hawaii and Massachusetts.

There are 14 newcomers to the Education Department’s list, and the education community is rallying around them. It is particularly concerned about a $500-million grant program to get computers and other educational technology into the classroom.

The Education Department said, in effect, that the program had largely accomplished its goal. But Mary Kusler, senior legislative specialist with the American Assn. of School Administrators, said plenty remained to be done.

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“Instead of training kids with the tools of today, they’ll have to use yesterday’s,” said Kusler, who is also president of the Committee for Education Funding, a consortium of 104 education groups.

Many of the Education Department programs on the hit list are small and were judged by the Bush administration to have had a limited effect. That argument does not go far in the education community.

“Many members [of Congress] don’t accept the proposition that a program is ineffective just because it is small and targeted,” said Ellin Nolan, president of Washington Partners, a public relations firm specializing in education issues.

Only two Education Department programs on the hit list -- Even Start, which combines early childhood education and parental training, and state grants to promote safe and drug-free schools -- were ranked as ineffective in the administration’s formal evaluation process.

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To counteract the administration’s findings, Nolan said, program advocates should get testimonials from teachers and students about the benefits of the programs.

In the case of the National Writing Project, Cochran and the chief House sponsor, Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), provided their own testimonials by visiting the writing classes offered by teachers who had gone through training at one of 189 centers around the country.

“Republicans like us, because the centers succeed or fail according to local demand, and those that don’t succeed lose their funding,” said Richard Sterling, the project’s Berkeley-based executive director. “Democrats like our strong emphasis on working with teachers of low-income students.”

The writing program is often left out of presidential requests. An initially private program that attracted congressional support in 1991, it has been included in a budget twice, at the end of the Clinton administration.

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Times staff writer Janet Hook contributed to this report.


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