The original, furiously populist theme of this column, as I envisioned it last weekend, was “Nationalize the Banks, Now!” Well, as of Monday that was taken care of, so, moving right along …

It seems inevitable that, no matter how much the majority of Americans support the broad outlines of President Obama’s budget plan, Congress is going to make a point of exacting at least a pound of flesh. That’s what Congresses do. Surely Obama is ready for it — his team no doubt put their request together expecting to have to give up significant elements of their plans.

The big question is whether Congress will merely tinker around the edges or will take a hatchet and chop away one or more of the three “pillars” on which the budget sits: health care, energy, and education. The decision probably will rest on another choice that Senate Democrats will soon make — whether to seek broad bipartisan support or ram the budget through, via the reconciliation process. (The latter scheme was devised in the 1970s to make contentious budget proposals easier to pass by rendering them immune to filibuster, thus empowering the congressional majority. Reconciliation has been used frequently since the Reagan administration, most famously for Bill Clinton’s first budget, on which Vice President Gore cast a tie-breaking vote.)

Sen. Kent ConradThe congressional knives are already being sharpened, with Democrats wielding scalpels and Republicans machetes. That’s not to say Democrats are being any more responsible or open-minded about it; it’s just that the special interests they’re protecting are more localized and less demanding. (Democratic Senator Kent Conrad’s refusal to consider reform of farm subsidies is by far the most irresponsible — and cynical, and stereotypical — bit of special-interest bootlicking so far on the record.) But it’s the Republicans who will try to send the Change Express flying off the tracks, by killing health-care or energy reform to placate the insurance and oil industries.

Or will they? The GOP may have lined up rhetorically behind “I hope Obama fails,” but they must be able to read the tea leaves, which say the electorate wants these programs and will punish the party that obstructs them. My guess is that the Senate Republicans instead will try to gut the funding devoted to health-care reform, in particular, without killing it entirely, and then will try to pull a “But Dagwood, look how much I saved you!” maneuver. (If you’re too young for Blondie references, look it up.)

The Republicans’ best chance for success, however, may be taking the axe to Obama’s education proposals. Obama ran for president promising to nationalize the student-loan system, expand Pell Grants, dramatically increase early-childhood education funding, and institute merit-pay reforms that reward excellent teachers with better salaries. All those pledges are fulfilled in his budget request, to the tune of more than $150 billion over 10 years – and that’s on top of $100 billion in education spending that already passed in the stimulus bill.

Don’t expect much of that spending to make it into Congress’s final legislation. Never mind that each of Obama’s proposals is logically sound and would have a huge impact on preparing young people for the workplaces of the future. Since when does logic (or even good sense) ever drive decisions about education funding in this country?

Due to repeated budget cuts, this Los Angeles school took 10 years longer to build than expectedThe sad fact is, Americans’ commitment to public education is at a low ebb. Sure, almost all of us say we value the notion of ensuring a basic education for everybody, but for at least 30 years we’ve allowed our standards to slip and our inner-city schools to crumble, both literally and figuratively. The symbolic beginning of this process, of course, was the passage of Proposition 13 here in California in 1978, an event that’s also widely recognized as the first evidence of the coming conservative tsunami. And a tsunami is pretty much what’s hit our education system ever since, with spending in most states stagnating or plunging in relation to the number of children requiring services.

Since Prop 13 gutted property-tax income in the state, California has tried every trick in the book to keep its schools functioning adequately, from budgetary gimmicks to targeted “revenue enhancers” (heaven forbid we call them “tax increases”) installed via referendum. Nothing ever really works, at least not on a long-term basis, and this year the state government slashed education spending by $6 billion — resulting in massive teacher layoffs and leaving many schools wondering how they’re going to make it to the end of the year.

Education, particularly inner-city education, is a favorite whipping boy for conservatives who complain that we “can’t just throw money at the problem.” Well, over the last two decades they’ve at least proven that if you don’t throw money at it, education will certainly become a huge problem. (The Bush years taught us that such a philosophy is applicable to the entire federal government as well.) Unfortunately, anti-tax sentiment, particularly at the state level, has never been reconciled with Americans’ general reliance upon public education, and as a result we’ve seen a dismaying drop in student performance, a dramatic rise in class sizes, and many other unfortunate consequences.

Americans rightly believe that education should be a federal matter — that educators in Alabama are likely to have different standards and needs than those in Arizona, and therefore decisions on funding, curriculum, etc., should be made locally. However, as the states have raced toward the bottom in their willingness to maintain education funding levels, the federal government (under both Democrats and Republicans, excepting Reagan’s brief effort to abolish the Education Department) has seen little choice but to step in and subsidize that funding.

The big difference is in the strings liberals and conservatives attach to those efforts. Democrats are too likely to emphasize teacher pay and place too little emphasis on teacher quality; Republicans are quick to use simple-minded standardized testing to place the onus on poorly performing schools to show statistical improvement, as exemplified by the No Child Left Behind Act. The trouble with the Democrats’ priorities is that better-paid teachers don’t directly translate to better schools; the trouble with Republican efforts is that, after placing all these illogical mandates on schools, they usually pull the funding rug out from underneath them anyway.

Obama’s education proposals de-emphasize No Child Left Behind to the point of benign neglect, which to my mind is just as well. However, there’s a danger that, in his effort to once again reinvent the wheel, Obama will find it more difficult to launch a new regime of federal spending than it would be to simply “throw more money at” No Child Left Behind, a program that Republicans voted for in 2001 and therefore would be more likely to support again, despite its many flaws. Obama’s priorities — on merit pay and professional development requirements as well as on boosting Head Start and making college practically a birthright — are well considered, but it’s easy to imagine the financing for them falling out of the budget legislation as both parties try to prove they’re fiscally responsible.

If this does come to pass, however, Congress won’t really be responsible at all — they’ll be negligent, and our annoying national experiment with high-expectation, underfunded public schools will continue. There comes a point, as states are beginning to find out, when the obsession with cutting the “waste” out of budgets rams headlong into the reality that there’s nothing left to cut without destroying the program you’re trying to save.

Perhaps it’s only a matter of time, as E.J. Dionne wrote this morning in the Washington Post, until Americans finally decide that the only realistic cure remaining for our budget deficits isn’t spending cuts, but tax increases — on everybody. For the time being, there’s no reason to expect such an apocalyptic revelation. Still, when the time comes for Congress and the states to once again take the axe to education budgets, it will be time to start asking ourselves what’s worse: “mortgaging our kids’ futures” so the government can spend more money on education, or raising a generation of kids too stupid to tell the difference?