From his spot on the dais, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) tried his best to inject a bit of dry humor into an otherwise sober Congressional hearing.
“Well, this has been a fun day for you,” said Hoyer, looking at Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who testified Thursday in front of the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies.
As she did last week during her appearance before the U.S. Senate’s parallel subcommittee, Spellings spent much of her time defending the Bush administration’s proposed 2007 budget, which calls for a $3.1 billion reduction in spending for the Department of Education. (Also on Wednesday, the Senate Budget Committee sent the first signal that Congress will reject such a big cut.)
“It’s unfortunate you have to sit in that seat and rationalize retreat,” said Hoyer, sounding every bit as harsh as many of the senators who questioned the administration’s priorities during the earlier hearing.
Still, there were attempts at conciliatory rhetoric. Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), the subcommittee’s chairman, set the tone by questioning Spellings more like she was an interview subject than a witness on the stand.
“The department has to make some logical changes,” said Rep. Michael Simpson (R-Idaho). “We’re not being critical.… We’re saying, ‘Let’s work together.’ ”
Added Hoyer: “You are hearing a lot more bipartisanship than I’ve ever heard on this committee.”
Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) began his statements in a less rosy manner: “I am going to be critical,” he said, accusing the Bush administration of “raiding student aid,” a phrase often used by student groups.
“Some have called this budget ‘scandalous,’ ” said Kennedy, referring to remarks by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) during the Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing. “I couldn’t agree with him more.”
Spellings again acknowledged that “tough decisions” need to be made, echoing her comments from last week that programs that fit under the mission statement of No Child Left Behind would get first priority in the administration’s budget.
“It’s more important than ever to spend taxpayer funds wisely,” she said. “I know there are concerns about resources, but we must fund our most important programs.”
Spellings continued to advocate for the Education Department’s $1.5 billion effort to extend the No Child Left Behind Act to high schools -- the “High School Reform Initiative.” She said states should be allowed more discretion in determining how to allocate funds.
The administration’s budget proposes eliminating 42 education programs. Regula asked Spellings how the Bush administration decided which ones to cross off.
“Those are programs that are ineffective and are small in nature,” she said. “They fail to reach the critical mass.”
Responding to a question from Rep. Simpson, Spellings said that the TRIO educational outreach programs were in some cases effective and in others ineffective.
“I’d like to see that specific data,” Simpson responded, questioning the assertion by Spellings
Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) passionately defended Upward Bound and Talent Search, both of which are on the chopping block.
“You are eliminating proven, successful programs and giving to a program that doesn’t exist right now,” Roybal-Allard said, pointing to the High School Reform Initiative.
Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) argued against cutting the Perkins Loan Program for low-income students. She told Spellings she was planning to speak to a group of students next week at The College of New Rochelle about grant money.
“Tell me what I should tell them,” Lowey said. “What I’m hearing is these cuts are going to be devastating. I’m worried they [students] are going to use high interest loans.”
Spellings replied that there are more effective ways to provide financial aid, including Pell Grants. She said the administration is also proposing to provide more financial help for students in math, science and techonology fields, as part of the Bush administration’s new Academic Competitiveness grants program.
Hoyer accused Bush of going back on a promise made to increase funding for Pell Grants, which would remain frozen for the fifth year in the a row. “I believe in accountability,” he said.