Don’t Plan on That Federal Education Spending Spree

After cramming most of the Biden agenda into one massive $3.5 trillion “Build Back Better” bill, it looks like Democrats are going to have to settle for a whole lot less — and possibly nothing. Though equipped with the frailest of congressional majorities, Democrats have opted to take the go-it-alone route rather than try to negotiate a smaller bill with Republicans, betting everything on a reconciliation bill that they hope to squeeze through a 50–50 U.S. Senate on a party-line vote and Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaker.

Well, that’s not going so well. And it has big implications for education, given that the original $3.5 trillion plan included $200 billion for pre-K, $188 billion for higher education, and billions more for various K-12 items. Passage of the whole bill requires that Dems hold every Democratic vote in the Senate and lose no more than three votes in the House. That, in turn, gives massive influence to both the most centrist and most left-wing members in each chamber. And the key Democratic centrists in the Senate, notably Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., have made clear that they don’t want to spend anything close to $3.5 trillion.

The upshot is that a Democratic spending spree once depicted as inevitable is shrinking before our eyes. Yet I’m not sure that education leaders appreciate that the $82 billion they expect for school construction and repairs or the $35 billion they expect to expand free and reduced-price school meals is unlikely to materialize. Indeed, in a story on how the White House is dealing with this, The Washington Post has reported, “If constrained to $1.5 trillion, Democrats could only fully fund a handful of their most important policy priorities. . . . [They’d] come close to reaching that number in spending if, hypothetically, their plans consisted of just three top priorities — tackling climate change, creating a national paid-leave program, and extending a tax benefit that alleviates child poverty.”

Such a tack would leave roughly zero dollars for universal pre-K, “free” community college, or other education programs. And even if the bill ends up closer to $2 trillion, as Manchin has recently signaled he may be willing to accept, the Dems will still have to make significant cuts to their original plans. If Democrats instead opt for the “spread-it-around” approach, education will be going toe-to-toe with the likes of the powerful seniors lobby (which is eager to add dental and vision benefits to Medicare). In short, education programs seem destined to get a lot less than half of the total initially included in the $3.5 trillion package, meaning that ambitious plans to make community college “free” or pre-K “universal” will have to be radically downsized.

And that’s assuming a bill actually gets passed. Between razor-thin majorities, Biden’s sinking poll numbers, the contretemps over the debt ceiling, and internal Democratic tensions, there’s now a small but real chance that the bill stalls out. This is what happened to Bill Clinton on his massive health-care plan in 1993–94 and to George W. Bush on his ambitious proposal to overhaul Social Security in 2005. Those pushing for transformative spending would do well to remember that the New Deal and the Great Society were produced by massive congressional majorities — not skin-of-your-teeth ones. Given that the current Democratic majority barely eked into power behind Biden’s promise to return the nation to normalcy, historians would suggest that failure is certainly an option.

The clashes between progressive hopes and prosaic reality could bring the whole proposal crashing down. There’s the odd dynamic of progressives forcing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to pull the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill because they’ll only vote for it if they can extract support for the reconciliation bill from Manchin and Sinema — who have already made it clear that they’re bothered by runaway spending. It’s the oddest kind of hostage-taking. There’s some chance that the centrists say, “The heck with it,” and Dems wind up with nothing.

Meanwhile, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., leader of the House’s 100-member progressive caucus, says she won’t support the reconciliation bill if it includes the decades-old Hyde Amendment, which stipulates that taxpayer money can’t be used to fund abortions. But Manchin has said that the bill would be “dead on arrival” if the Hyde Amendment isn’t included. That’s what you call a standoff.

Oh, and Manchin and Sinema are now being subjected to the kind of harassment that’s apparently prompting them to further dig in their heels, especially since both stand to gain politically from being seen as checks on their caucus’ more left-wing members. And none of this gets into the byzantine politics of raising the ceiling on the federal debt or the risk that Democratic factions wind up stalemated over what gets included.

During Trump’s first year in office, Democrats guffawed when Republican attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) collapsed under schisms between the centrists and the right wing. They cheered Sen. John McCain for protecting the ACA. Well, that’s how the legislative process is supposed to work. Sweeping policy change shouldn’t be the product of bare majorities. It’s striking how many Democrats and pundits who celebrated McCain’s independence have adopted a very different take now. What we’re watching is a textbook study in how our political process is supposed to work. I hope educators and educational advocates treat it as such.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

Direct Ed Policy Studies at AEI. Teach a bit at Rice, UPenn, Harvard. Author of books like Cage-Busting Leadership and Spinning Wheels. Pen Ed Week's RHSU blog.