Higher education lobbyists will take victories anywhere they can find them during these tight budget times, and they found some reason for optimism in the halls of a U.S. House of Representatives office building on Wednesday.
The subcommittee that allocates funds for education, job training programs and the National Institutes of Health approved a 2007 spending bill that would increase the maximum Pell Grant award by $100 -- to $4,150 -- and sustain (at their 2006 funding levels) multiple programs that were slated for extinction in President Bush's proposed budget.
The bill put forth by the Republican majority of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies was approved in a vote that stayed true to party affiliation and is set to go to the full committee, as soon as next week. The bill calls for $141.9 billion in discretionary funding, a slight increase from 2006 and a more than $4 billion increase over the President’s budget.
Bush's proposal recommended flat funding of Pell Grants for the fifth straight year, so the modest increase to the entitlement program in the subcommittee’s bill pleased the higher education contingent. “We’re grateful for the $100 increase,” said Cynthia A. Littlefield, director of government relations for the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. “We’re in a long lean streak, so any increase will go a long way, though we still have a lot of work to do.”
Many watched with interest to see how the subcommittee would handle some of the job training and college preparation programs that received no funding in the Bush administration request. The subcommittee's bill would restore to their 2006 funding levels the Federal Perkins Loan, the Leveraging Educational Assistance Partnership Program and Gear Up -- all of which the Bush administration proposed killing.
The bill calls for flat funding for the TRIO programs for disadvantaged students, at $828 million. The Bush budget would cut the program by more than half. Littlefield said the flat funding for these programs was “as expected.”
Acknowledging that his hands are somewhat tied by limited resources, Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), the subcommittee’s chairman, said the bill addresses the needs of low-income families. “These are programs that help people -- it’s important to recognize them in allocating the nation’s reserve.”
Democrats proposed no amendments to the bill during the drafting session, known as a markup, saying that they simply didn’t have the votes to win. But that didn’t stop them from voicing their displeasure with what Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) called a “totally inadequate budget.”
After a few minutes of civility, House Democrats went on the attack, questioning their Republican counterparts’ commitment to helping working-class Americans afford a college education -- a theme the minority party is likely to hammer home during the fall election campaign, and one that may have contributed to the proposal to increase the Pell Grant. A few Republicans defended the legislation at Wednesday's session, but Democrats dominated the floor.
“Here’s the story as I see it: Families spend more to send their kids to college; their costs are not frozen,” said Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), the senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. “We’re not going to effectively deal with this by keeping the status quo. And this bill is worse than that. People who are supposed to be the focus wind up getting squeezed.”
Obey applauded the $100 Pell Grant increase but said Congress is still playing catch-up. Last year, Bush’s budget called for a $100 increase in the maximum Pell Grant amount, the House recommended a $500 increase and at final count, the funding remained flat. Obey said a $350 award increase from last year would be needed to keep up with the rise in college costs.
Regula said the boost in Pell Grant money is a step forward. “That’s a good incentive and I hope it [prompts] institutions of higher education to respond with tuition help so we give every student a chance,” he said.
The bill would set the overall Pell Grant funding at about $13 billion, a slight decrease from a year ago but a modest increase from what Bush’s budget proposes.
The National Institutes of Health would receive about $28.3 billion, with a variety of programs losing funding. Barry Toiv, a spokesman for the Association of American Universities, called the overall bill “a mixed bag” and the NIH allotment “disappointing but not unexpected.”
Added Pat White, AAU’s director of federal relations: “We are continuing to throw away research capacity created by the NIH doubling," the several-year effort in the late 1990s and early 2000s that doubled the agency's budget. "In real terms, this is a cumulative loss over the past three years [taking inflation into account]. It means fewer investigators pursuing projects.”
David Baime, vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges, said he is grateful for the proposed Pell Grant increase but disappointed that the Community College Initiative program wasn’t funded at the level proposed by the President. The bill sets funding at $125 million, the same as last year’s budget, while Bush’s proposal is $150 million. (The program was originally proposed for $250 million.)
Funds for vocational education, including the Tech-Prep progam, also remained at level funding.
The news was good for the Health Resources and Services Administration's health professions programs, which would receive $163.6 million in funding under the subcommittee’s bill, a modest increase over the 2006 level and a major increase from the $9.7 million Bush’s budget recommended.
Erica Froyd, a senior legislative analyst with the Association of American Medical Colleges, said her group appreciated that the House panel would give the health professions programs more funds than a year ago. She said the organization is still pushing for a return to the previous funding of $300 million.
The bill also calls for a $47 million cut to the AmeriCorps program, and flat funding for historically black colleges and Hispanic serving institutions.
The Senate Appropriations Committee has not yet begun work on its version of the spending bill for education, labor and health programs.