Posturing, panicking and backpedaling and, of course, politicking -- all of those were in ample supply Wednesday as lobbyists, lawmakers and other players prepared for today's House of Representatives debate over legislation to renew the Higher Education Act.
Developments were fast and furious on an array of fronts. Among the most significant:
- The White House announced in a "Statement of Administration Policy" that it "strongly opposed" the legislation crafted collaboratively by the Democratic chairman and senior Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, but stopped short of threatening a veto, as Statements of Administration Policy often do. The White House cited numerous objections, led by the fact that the legislation would prohibit the U.S. Education Department from issuing federal regulations governing higher education accreditation.
- A day after introducing it, Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), under heavy pressure from colleges, withdrew an amendment that would have required every college, regardless of size or wealth, to spend at least 5 percent of its endowment assets each year. College associations went all-out in opposing the plan, prompting scores and even hundreds of calls and e-mails to Congressional offices. But echoing warnings by other members of Congress, Welch vowed to continue pressing college leaders on whether they are doing enough to contain their spending and, in turn, their prices.
- Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, in an op-ed published today in the Washington political publication Politico, blasted Democratic lawmakers and colleges for colluding to stop the Bush administration's efforts to strengthen the quality control aspects of accreditation. She said Democrats had sided with "old structures and entrenched stakeholders” -- presumably traditional colleges and accreditors -- who are "insular, clubby, and wish to be accountable to no one but themselves." The op-ed reportedly angered some members of Congress.
- House Republican leaders said they would use today's vote on the Higher Education Act legislation to ramp up their campaign against earmarks. Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio and House Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri said that as part of their larger effort to compel an "immediate moratorium on taxpayer-funded" directed spending by lawmakers, they would try to attach legislation that would ban earmarks from future bills to the Higher Education Act renewal. The higher education bill is a target mainly because it is the first piece of legislation to pass through the House in recent weeks, but the Republican leaders' statement also noted that the college legislation authorizes the "Fund for Improving Post-Secondary Education" (close enough on the name), which they called a "taxpayer-funded slush fund for higher education earmarks." The Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, the agency in question, was designed to award projects on a competitive basis but has been larded up with earmarks, known as pork barrel spending, in recent years.
- The House Rules Committee late Wednesday cleared the way for the House to consider 27 of the 61 amendments that were submitted by House members. (A list of the amendments the House will consider, with links to the text of the amendments, appears here. In addition to the amendment that Welch withdrew, one other controversial amendment, aimed at exposing potentially illegal affirmative action in college admissions, won't be considered because the Rules Committee rejected it.)
Those elements and more should help ensure that today's debate and vote over the Higher Education Act renewal is more eventful than it might otherwise have been, given that it has bipartisan support and should pass by a wide margin.
The legislation was approved by a 45 to 0 vote of the Education and Labor Committee in November, and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the panel's chairman, and Rep. Howard P. (Buck) McKeon, its senior Republican, have worked closely together since then to refine the bill so that it retains Democratic and Republican support alike. McKeon, in a meeting with reporters on Wednesday, said that he is "personally pretty happy" with the bill and that he believed it would garner significant Republican support.
GOP support may be muted, though, by the White House's opposition to the legislation. Assessing the true meaning of administration statements on legislation is a little like deciphering ancient texts. But it's fair to say that the fact that the White House did not threaten to veto the Higher Ed Act bill, as it did the House budget reconciliation legislation and the omnibus appropriations bill last fall, is meaningful; the White House wants changes and a seat at the table in future negotiations over the bill, but is unlikely to go to the mat and veto a bill that is seen as helping families afford college and cleaning up the student loan program.
The unusually lengthy and detailed Statement of Administration Policy lays out a series of objections to the House legislation, including the fact that it would create dozens of new programs (higher education lobbyists estimate more than 50), "many of which are narrow in purpose, duplicative, burdensome, and poorly targeted;" that it would make receipt of some federal funds contingent on how much colleges raise their tuitions (or not); and that some of the new programs it would create (like those that would direct funds to predominantly black and Asian-serving institutions) "would prioritize or restrict eligibility to institutions or groups defined by racial or ethnic criteria," provisions "that raise significant constitutional concerns."
But the administration's primary reason for opposing the bill is its much-debated provision that would bar the Education Department from promulgating regulations to govern how accreditors hold colleges accountable for student learning. This stems from an intense fight between the department, colleges and Congress over the administration's efforts last spring to negotiate new federal rules for accreditation while Congress was considering legislation dealing with some of the same issues. Members of Congress, led by Sen. Lamar Alexander of Spellings's own Republican party, injected provisions into various pieces of legislation that barred the department from carrying out its objectives for accreditation, and Spellings has carried a grudge ever since.
Just how much vitriol she has retained was clear in the Politico piece. In the op-ed, headlined "Congress digs a moat around its ivory tower," Spellings writes that instead of attacking problems as it has in other industries "in crisis," like toy manufacturers and subprime mortgage lenders, lawmakers, in writing the Higher Education Act, have embraced legislative fixes that "amount to digging a moat around the 'ivory tower' instead of knocking down the very barriers that block access to an affordable post-secondary education and to information that can guide a student’s decision-making process."
"Would the American people let powerful lobbying forces persuade Congress to handcuff the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission from carrying out its responsibility for ensuring that consumers have the data they need to make informed decisions about their investments, whether saving for a home, their retirement or their children’s education? Of course not! Then why has Congress been persuaded to block the U.S. Department of Education from overseeing the quality of institutions of higher education by special interest forces determined to keep the accreditation process insular, clubby and accountable to no one but themselves?"
She closes with this: "At the end of the day, will Congress be on the side of the 18 million students and their families who believe higher education is their ticket to a better quality of life? Or will Congress side with an elite few who refuse to acknowledge the changing face of America, dismiss gains by our international competitors and scoff at incorporating innovation and technology into today’s dynamic learning environment? Time will tell."
A Withdrawal and a Warning to Colleges
For many college leaders and lobbyists, the 48 hours leading up to today's vote were dominated by the surprise introduction of Welch's amendment to require all colleges to pay out at least 5 percent of their endowments each year. Although that idea has been kicked around in recent months, most notably by Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, as a way to get colleges to consider spending more of their own money to help students afford college, it had not made its way into legislative form until Welch slipped it in just before Tuesday's deadline for submitting amendments. (College lobbyists expressed dismay that some private college presidents had met with Welch on Monday and had not been warned that the legislation might be coming.)
Most of the major Washington higher education associations sent out alerts urging their members to barrage Welch and other lawmakers with letters and e-mail explaining why the idea was ill-advised. By mid-day Wednesday, Welch had withdrawn the amendment, although another that he submitted, which would require colleges to report to the Education Department an array of information about how they spend their endowments, was among the 27 that the House Rules Committee cleared for consideration during today's debate.
Relieved as they may be to have warded off this particular challenge to their spending practices, the relief may be temporary. In an interview Wednesday as he returned to Washington for today's vote, Welch, a former Vermont state senator whose late wife spent 14 years as dean of arts and sciences at the University of Vermont, described himself as a "strong supporter of increasing aid to higher education."
But "here's the concern," he said: "If every time we raise a dollar for financial aid, it gets burned and then becomes an increased dollar in tuition, students are going to continue to fall behind. The question of college affordability is a crucial question, and it has to be addressed on both sides of the equation. We have to get the attention of the leaders and advocates for higher education on the cost side, and encourage them to find ways that are within their discretionary control to abate those costs."
He added: "My amendment was intended to send the message to college leaders to get actively engaged on the cost side as well as on the financial aid side. The best solution is going to be for the administrators in charge of the institutions to accept the challenge on the cost side and start making the hard decisions.
"If they continue to not step up, they are going to see growing pressure from Congress."
Because Welch more or less came out of nowhere to speak out on this issue, campus officials may be inclined to disregard his pressure. But they'll have a harder time dismissing similar warnings from McKeon, who has been hammering on the cost issues for a decade now and shows no signs of easing up. (An op-ed by McKeon on the Higher Ed Act legislation appears elsewhere on this site today.)
In his interview with reporters Wednesday, McKeon joked that he was "just a little ahead of my time" in prodding higher education institutions on their prices. Colleges have done relatively little to slow the rise of tuitions over the past decade, so it may be time for more aggressive measures, he said. At the time of the meeting, Welch had not yet withdrawn his amendment, and a reporter asked McKeon whether he would support it if it came up for a vote. "I would probably vote for that," he said, though he thought any federal payout requirement should be on a sliding scale so as not to punish smaller and less-wealthy institutions.
Asked how a free market Republican like him could support a federal mandate that dictated colleges' spending policies, McKeon hesitated and said, with a smile, "Sometimes we get two principles that go up against each other. As long as we are helping with federal financial aid, we need to make sure schools aren't just sitting on money in their foundations. Other foundations are forced to pay out a minimum. I don't see anything wrong with that."