“No continuing resolution to fund the government that fails to reduce spending will pass,” Alabama senator Jeff Sessions said yesterday at an education spending hearing. “It won’t pass the House or the Senate. We are going to fight for spending cuts this week, next week, next month, and next year.”

The hearing’s sole witness, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, was just as determined in his defense of the education budget requests made by the administration.

“Make no mistake,” Duncan said in his prepared testimony. “The budget request for education is more about investment than cuts.”

The word "investment," for this administration, means more government spending. But Duncan, likely aware of the cost-cutting political climate in Congress, also offered explanations of several cuts in proposed education spending, including “changes” to the Pell Grant and student loan programs that the Department of Education claims will save more than $100 billion over the next ten years.

This claim later invited a heated but informative exchange between Duncan and Sessions, ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, who argues that increased spending doesn’t necessarily improve the quality of education.

“In 2008, we provided Pell Grants for 6 million,” Sessions said. “Now we’re providing Pell Grants, under your proposal, for 9.6 million people, increasing that, doubling the entire budget, and we don’t have the money.”

“The only way we strengthen our economy long-term is to produce the innovators, the entrepreneurs, the knowledge workers,” Duncan answered.

“Well why don’t we spend three times as much on Pell Grants?” Sessions interrupted. “Won’t that just fix it all?”

Duncan explained that the budget plan does make cuts to expected Pell Grants for the 2012 budget.

“Well this is Washington math,” Sessions said. “You haven’t cut Pell Grants. Pell Grants are increasing dramatically, Mr. Secretary. The numbers are plain.”

“That’s correct,” Duncan said, “and they would have increased even more significantly had we not made the tough and painful decision to eliminate—”

“You’re proposing they increase that much,” Sessions interrupted again. “They’re not going to be increased that much because we don’t have the money.”

The exchange, a demonstration of how baseline budgeting makes a smaller-than-projected increase in spending a “cut” in the minds of bureaucrats, should remind one of New Jersey governor Chris Chistie’s budget proposal address, delivered last week in Trenton. Christie said the days of baseline budgeting in New Jersey are over:

For too many years, our government has operated under the belief that the baseline — the place you begin — is to continue to fund every program in the budget: regardless of the fiscal climate, regardless of the economy, and regardless of the effectiveness of the program. Not anymore.

Our process is based on the belief that to survive and to grow, you need to build a realistic budget from the bottom up. You fund what you need — this year — to succeed, not every relic from two decades ago that is still on the books.

The baseline is zero. Zero-based budgeting, which I promised in the campaign, has finally come to New Jersey.

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