Millions from Education Lobby to Block Budget Cuts
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Millions from Education Lobby to Block Budget Cuts

iStockphoto/The Fiscal Times

With at least $16 billion in federal funds and grants at stake next year if the government goes over the fiscal cliff, the nation’s universities and primary and secondary education systems are waging a pricey and unprecedented lobbying effort to try to protect those funds from automatic cuts set to take effect in early January.

College presidents, governors, state officials and even local school board members are working feverishly to rally support among lawmakers and the Obama administration to protect education from the budget knife. Their efforts have included intense letter writing campaigns, social media and   websites illustrating the likely impact of the cuts on states and individual school districts, and face-to-face meetings with members of Congress.

Of the 421 groups that hired lobbyists this year to work against the more than $100 billion of looming spending cuts in domestic and defense programs, 91 are education groups, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group. By comparison, just 26 organizations have lobbied against sequestration on behalf of the defense industry.

Taken together, the nation’s colleges and universities, research institutions, labor unions and other advocates for education have spent a total of more than $67 million this year lobbying on behalf of education and against the threatened spending cuts, according to figures compiled by the center.


"Heading into the holidays we’re increasingly concerned about these cuts that could have a very serious impact on research, education and health care,” Chris Harrington, a spokesperson for the University of California, told The Fiscal Times this week. “We’ve had a very strong advocacy effort. We've been meeting with members and staff on the Hill, urging them to protect what’s driving the economy forward---and that’s universities and research facilities. We’re preparing the next generation of great minds."

Under the sequester mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act, more than $335 million in federal funding for UC research would be lost in fiscal year  2013 alone. "We just sent a letter to the California delegation urging Congress to protect our students and facilities from these cuts that could have very serious consequences and broad impact on the university and even the entire country,” Harrington said.

National labor unions have also emerged as a powerful lobbying force on behalf of education. This year, the National Education Association, the largest labor union in the country, spent $5,418,627 on lobbying, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and it asked its more than 3 million members to urge members of Congress to spare education from the devastating cuts.

“The stakes are so very high,” said Mary Kusler, director of government relations for the NEA. “We are going to keep pushing and pushing. We are willing to do whatever it takes to keep the students, teachers and families who will be affected by these cuts front and center in the minds of Congress.”

Not surprisingly, the American Federation of Teachers spent a little more than $1 million lobbying Congress this year, according to the center, and has been a very active voice against the massive budget belt-tightening set for next year.

"Sequestration would result in dangerous consequences for healthcare. Medicare and Medicaid cuts would threaten patient access to healthcare, and we would see the loss of hundreds of thousands of nursing and other healthcare-related jobs,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said in a statement.

Meanwhile, more than 100 school boards already have passed resolutions urging members of Congress to stop sequestration. The National School Boards Association (NSBA) has asked school boards to pass a resolution, write letters to local newspapers and take actions to publicize schools’ plights.

While the media has focused largely on the likely impact of more than $50 billion of across-the-board cuts in defense programs and contracts scheduled to take effect next year, domestic programs will take an equally big hit. If sequestration takes hold, education funding will be subject to cuts ranging from a high of 9.1 percent in 2013 to 5.5 percent in 2021, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Unless Congress and the Obama administration intervene and cancel the budget sequestration, or school systems find ways to reduce administrative and pension costs , the estimated $4.1 billion cut in the Department of Education would affect elementary and high school programs, special education, rehabilitation, and federal student aid, among programs.

In addition, an estimated $12.1 billion cut in research and development would decimate research and development programs at the NIH, the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the National Foundation, and 62 major public and private colleges and universities that do advanced research.  Some of the research projects are controversial and seem wasteful.  Senator Tom Coburn, author of the annual government “Wastebook,” cites this example in 2012:

Purdue University researchers used part of a $350,000 National Science Foundation grant to examine the benefit golfers might gain from using their imagination. The work was also supported previously by part of a $1.1 million National Institutes of Health grant. Thirty-six golfers participated in the study.

On Wednesday, the Office of Management and Budget sent a notice to federal agencies telling them to prepare for the possibility of deep automatic spending cuts at the year's end. Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, told reporters that "the White House is simply ensuring that the administration is prepared should it become necessary to issue such an order.”

Both President Obama and congressional leaders are eager to cancel sequestration, but that won’t be possible unless Obama and the Republicans reach an accord on a long term plan for deficit reduction and entitlement and tax reform.

Many college and university presidents say they understand the importance of getting the country on a sustainable course of spending and deficit reduction, but that educational and research programs have already been feeling the squeeze and need to be protected from future deep cuts. In a letter to Obama and congressional leaders, members of the Association of American Universities and the Association of Public Land Grant Universities stressed that entitlement and tax reform is the key to a “prudent and effective deficit reduction agreement,” but not further cuts in discretionary spending on education and research.

“Our feeling is that [sequestration] would be a real disaster for the U.S. research enterprise because we’ve already been facing over the last several years certainly a decline in spending in real terms,”  Barry Toiv,  vice president for public affairs at the AAU in Washington, told the Fiscal Times.  “This is at a time when other countries are pouring resources into higher education and research. If we get ourselves on a permanent track of decline, we’re going to lose our role as a global leader.”