Early Thursday morning, the House of Representatives approved a budget plan that would apparently restore billion in funds President Bush wants to cut from education, health and other social programs. Also Thursday, the House approved an amendment to add $5 million each to the budgets of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts -- a relatively rare victory for federal support in those areas.
For months now, the House has been trying to reach agreement on the budget resolution for fiscal 2007. The resolution sets ceilings on how much money can go toward certain areas, but it doesn't allocate funds to specific programs within those areas. House Republicans have been feuding among themselves, preventing passage of the plan -- even as appropriations bills have started to move forward.
On Thursday, a group of Republican moderates were won over to support the bill because of a statement attached to it that pledged to restore $7 billion in cuts proposed by President Bush to the allocation for education, health and human services and labor programs. This allocation is of huge importance to colleges because it includes student aid programs at the Education Department and research funds at the National Institutes of Health. The restoration makes it possible that some of the proposed cuts the administration wants to make to various student aid programs might not need to take place. (In March, the Senate made a similar change from the administration's budget request.)
The Association of American Universities and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges sent a letter this week to the moderate Republicans pushing for this restoration, praising their work on the issue.
There were conflicting reports Thursday about just how firm the commitment of the Republican leadership is to the restoration of funds, however. And college officials stressed that even if they do get that money, it's only enough to support current levels of funding, at a time of increased need, and by no means will make budget negotiations easy.
While Rep. Michael Castle, the Delaware Republican, has indicated that he believes he received a firm commitment on the entire $7 billion, others believe that there is only a strong commitment on part of that money. "As a result of Congressman Castle's efforts, we are now $4.1 billion better off than we were when this process began," said Bill Parsons, associate director of government relations at the American Council on Education. "The remaining $3.1 billion is at this point probably best thought of as a recognition of the need, a non-binding intention. It's not yet a hard commitment."
On the House floor on Thursday, an amendment was passed to increase 2007 appropriations for the National Endowment for the Humanities to $146 million and the National Endowment for the Arts to $129 million -- an extra $5 million from this year's levels and over what the House Appropriations Committee had recommended. While $5 million is pocket change in the context of the total federal budget, the NEH and NEA have generally been operating in an environment with limited political support and where level funding is frequently the norm. So the increases were seen as a welcome sign -- and one that college officials would love to see replicated in the Senate.
"We're very encouraged. Congress seems to have gotten beyond a period when there was a strong hostility toward the endowments," said Barry Toiv, director of communications and public affairs for the Association of American Universities.