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An Outline with Few Details

December 13, 2006

In a nearly empty U.S. House of Representatives office building Tuesday, a press conference featuring Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman-designate of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, promised at least modest intrigue: How would the man charged with setting one chamber's higher education agenda paint the picture for 2007 and beyond?

With a broad first coat, it turns out.

Miller did little to clarify how the Democrats, who will assume a majority in both the House and Senate for the first time since 1994, plan to carry out their plan to make college more affordable for low- and middle-income students. Instead, he stuck closely to a favorite Democratic narrative: "Strengthening America's Middle Class," the words splashed on a banner behind him and the phrase flowing frequently from his tongue.

Miller mostly reiterated what Democrats have said in the weeks since their November 7 triumph: In the first 100 hours of the 110th Congress, expect a plan to cut interest rates in half on some college loans. So, chairman, where will the money come from?

“That’s our challenge,” he deadpanned.

(Higher education lobbyists have said in recent days that they expect Democrats to propose cutting the interest rates over several years, rather than all at once, as was originally proposed.)

Raising the maximum Pell Grant award made Miller's list of most pressing concerns for the coming year -- though he didn't mention a specific figure. Democrats are said to want to raise the maximum award to $5,800 over the next seven years, which would more than a $1,700 per-person increase over the current amount. It's an expensive proposal, to be sure, and is the discretionary funding there in a Democratically controlled Congress?

Miller's answer framed what appeared to be a tempering of expectations. 

“We’ve been left with substantial seas of red ink over the last 12 years,” he said. “We aren’t taking our eye off the ball, though.”

Miller did say that he expects Congress to find money to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act, the Bush Administration’s centerpiece K-12 legislation. NCLB dominated Tuesday's discussion, and some expect it to take precedence over the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which governs student aid and other federal higher education programs. The House already passed a revision, but with a change of party leadership it's uncertain what will follow (though odds are that the Republican-crafted bill from the 109th Congress will be dead in the water in the 110th). Miller said he is "hopeful" that a Higher Ed Act reauthorization will take place in 2007, but that "I'm only the chairman. I'm respectful of my members."

Miller said he wants to initiate discussions with colleges to “do what we can do to help them with cost containment.”  When asked if escalating presidential and administrative salaries are a primary concern, he responded: “I want to look at college costs in their entirety. I don’t want to finger this as a silver bullet.”

During his address, Miller made no mention of several of the Democrats' higher education talking points, including a permanent tax deduction for college costs borne by middle class families, or a plan to give colleges incentives to participate in direct lending programs. There was no clarification as to how the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education will factor into the Democrats' agenda.

Rep. Howard P.  (Buck) McKeon (R-Calif.), the departing committee chairman who will serve as the panel's ranking Republican in the next Congress, said that he applauds Miller for addressing "the heart of the college cost crisis -- the lack of institutional accountability for hyperinflation in tuition and fees."

 

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