President Reagan's Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell and Budget Director David A. Stockman are in a new and sharp dispute over spending ceilings.
One issue is a $900 million program that unaccountably got lost and left out of the budget entirely.
A second and more fundamental issue is that Stockman is now pressing for future budget ceilings that would mean cutting this year's appropriations for basic education 27 percent below the level the president first proposed last March. That is more than double the 12 percent cut the budget director is asking in most other programs in his drive to hold down the deficit.
In a letter written Oct. 2, copies of which have leaked, Bell told Stockman he was already hearing "cries of outrage from the education community" over 12 percent cuts. Asking for 27 percent instead would put him "in a position of considerable embarrassment," he wrote. He suggested that he and Stockman meet to discuss "the political realities."
The missing $900 million program helps finance rehabilitation services for the handicapped. Earlier in the year Stockman proposed including it in a social services block grant to state and local governments; that meant moving it into the budget of the Department of Health and Human Services. When the block grant idea fell apart in Congress, it was dropped from the HHS budget, but someone at OMB forgot to put it back in the education budget.
It evidently took a while to discover this. But on Oct. 5 Bell wrote Stockman another letter to discuss the $900 million "omission" from his budget.
"You have never returned those funds back to the Department of Education," Bell complained. And when education officials raised the issue, Bell said, an OMB official told them they could keep the program but "would have to eat" the cost.
"This seems to fly in the face of both fair play and good budget building logic," Bell said.
Edwin Dale, a spokesman for Stockman, said yesterday the fate of the rehabilitation program was unsettled. He declined to discuss the other issue, the proposed 27 percent cuts.
These arose because of a peculiar problem: many education programs are "forward-funded," meaning this year's appropriations are for next year's spending. This enables state and local officials to know in advance how much federal aid to expect each year.
Stockman last month sent spending ceilings for the next two years--fiscal 1983 and 1984--to all departments. These ceilings are meant to achieve further budget cuts. For most departments these cuts can be made by reducing next year's appropriations; for education, they require reductions this year.
For the Education Department, Stockman proposed that actual spending be reduced to $11.4 billion in fiscal 1983 and $8.9 billion in 1984. That will require an additional appropriations reduction this year of $2 billion below the $13.1 billion requested in March, Bell said. "I am convinced that you are not aware of the magnitude of the budget authority cuts required to meet the budget outlay targets listed above," he wrote Stockman.
Appearing before a House appropriations subcommittee yesterday, Bell proposed that $12.6 billion be appropriated for his department in fiscal 1982. The House passed a $14.1 billion appropriation on Oct. 6; the Senate has yet to act. Subcommittee Chairman William Natcher (D-Ky.) and ranking minority member Silvio Conte (R-Mass.) made it clear yesterday they don't favor any more cuts in education at all.
Bell testified that his budget is being eaten up by the growth of interest-sensitive programs like college student loans. The administration will propose legislative changes to control future growth, he said.
Under questioning from skeptical subcommittee members, he acknowledged concern about the impact of further cuts. "Yes, I really am concerned, especially with how well the Title I program for disadvantaged elementary school students is doing," he said. Bell said he had no choice but to propose more cuts in the successful program because it was one of the department's largest.