President Obama last week delivered a rousing address to Congress meant to inspire hope in the hearts of anxious Americans. It was an excellent speech. But the next day, Democratic leaders in Congress responded in a manner that applies hope in all the wrong places – taking hope away from disadvantaged children in our nation’s capital, and giving new hope to representatives of Washington’s pork-barrel industry in the form of 9,000 unscrutinized taxpayer-funded earmarks.
If ever there were a case of mixed-up priorities in Washington, this is it. Tucked into the $410 billion “omnibus” spending bill passed by the House of Representatives on February 25 is a provision designed to terminate the Washington Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), the school choice program established with bipartisan support in 2004 that is providing a glimmer of hope to thousands of students and families in the District of Columbia.
More than 2,000 students have been able to attend one of the D.C. area non-public schools through the program since it was established, and more than 7,200 have applied for scholarships, demonstrating the overwhelming public demand in the District among parents for new educational options for their children.
The D.C. opportunity scholarship program is creating greater opportunities and transforming lives.
“[The OSP] gives me the choice to, freedom to attend other schools than D.C. public schools,” one thankful parent told researchers from the University of Arkansas, which conducted an in-depth study of the program’s performance. “I’m not really badgering or bashing the system, but right now, well at the time, I just didn’t feel that I wanted to put him in D.C. public school and I had the opportunity to take one of the scholarships, so therefore, I can afford it and I’m glad that I did do that.”
In a video entitled “Voices of School Choice” posted on the website of the education reform-minded Heritage Foundation, local students participating in the OSP tell President Obama first-hand about the importance of the program, and implore him to keep it alive.
Buried in the so-called “omnibus” bill, however, is a poison pill intended to terminate the program. The language in the bill, proposed by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), sunsets the program after the 2009-2010 school year unless both Congress and the D.C. City Council take specific steps to reauthorize it.
Reauthorization is clearly not the intent of the Democratic leaders who run Congress. Powerful teachers unions that oppose school choice contributed millions to Democratic campaigns last year, and the Democratic leadership in Congress now has the program in its crosshairs. In a recent statement, House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-OK) advised D.C. School Chancellor Michelle Rhee to “promptly take steps to minimize potential disruption and ensure smooth transition” for children currently participating in the program to re-enroll in the District’s public schools.
Children across America stand to be negatively impacted by the legislation passed by the House in a more subtle, but equally harmful way.
The bill contains the largest single increase in federal discretionary spending since the Carter Administration in 1978, with the exception of the temporary increase enacted following the 9/11 attacks. Billions of dollars of this increase will pay for approximately 9,000 taxpayer-funded earmarks “airdropped” into the bill by Democratic congressional leaders at the last possible moment in an effort to minimize public scrutiny.
Some of these projects are probably legitimate. Many others undoubtedly are not. The “airdropping” tactic makes it impossible for Members of Congress and the American public to distinguish worthy projects from worthless pork – a procedure that has been abused by the Democratic majority repeatedly since it took the reins of power in 2007, despite its frequent boasts of increased transparency.
Our children and grandchildren will pay not just for the earmarks, but for the entire increase. This is simply a fact. The federal government is broke, and all of the money for these expenditures is being borrowed. Future generations of Americans are picking up the bill for each new spending adventure on which we embark.
This is not fiscal responsibility; it is generational theft. Never before has Congress spent so much, so quickly, or so irresponsibly. How did it happen?
The answer is simple: the majority leadership in Congress made a calculated bet that it could get away with it. The legislation was drafted and completed many weeks ago, but was kept secret by congressional leaders until the last possible moment.
On February 5 – nearly three weeks before the bill was brought to the floor of the House – I and other Republican leaders formally asked Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) to post the bill online so the American people would have adequate time to review its contents before they paid for it with their hard-earned money. There was no response by the Democratic leadership to the request. They gambled that our request would be lost in the shuffle of the debate over the so-called “stimulus,” and they were largely correct.
Leading Republicans in the House and Senate pushed for a better solution: a spending freeze that would strip the omnibus bill of all its airdropped earmarks and hold government spending at current levels. Democratic leaders in both chambers scoffed at this common-sense proposal.
The losers in this scheme are American taxpayers, and the children of Washington, D.C. and elsewhere. It is they who will pay the price for the lack of transparency under which the flawed omnibus spending bill is being rushed through Congress, while the Washington earmark industry profits.
President Obama has rightly called for elected leaders of all parties to put past agendas aside and deliver legislation that addresses the priorities of struggling American families, rather than the selfish agendas of Washington-based special-interests.
The Senate should reject this flawed legislation – and if the Senate fails to reject it, the President should veto it. When and if he does, House Republicans stand ready to work with the President to ensure his veto is sustained, and to produce a better bill worthy of our nation’s children and families.