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July 29, 2009

WASHINGTON -- Even as the Obama administration and Congress poured tens of billions of dollars into programs important to colleges in the economic recovery package last spring, higher education officials had a quiet anxiety. Would receiving this one-time money now mean less in the form of annual appropriations (which get built into the base budget) later?

To judge by the 2010 budget that the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies drafted Tuesday, the answer is Yes. The panel's spending plan for the key education, labor and health agencies would provide little in the way of new money for programs for students and colleges, and unlike in most recent years, Senate leaders would match but not exceed the executive branch's proposed spending for the National Institutes of Health. The subcommittee's chairman, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, and its senior Republican, Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, made clear that they were focusing their precious funds on priorities that did not get so much help from the stimulus.

“We’re considering this bill less than six months since Congress passed the Recovery Act, which provided more than $124 billion for programs that are under this subcommittee’s jurisdiction, including almost $100 billion for the Department of Education and more than $10 billion for the National Institutes of Health," Harkin said in introducing the legislation. “That act was a major factor in shaping this bill. Some people might look at funding levels in this bill and wonder why there isn’t more money for some of our traditional priorities, such as ... Pell Grants ... and the National Institutes of Health. Those are usually the programs that get the biggest increases in our bill.

"But those programs received enormous increases in the Recovery Act, and most of that funding will be obligated during the same period covered by this appropriations bill, fiscal year 2010," Harkin continued. "So instead of providing even more increases to programs that did very well in the Recovery Act, this bill instead emphasizes several other important programs," such as (K-12) school facilities repair and worker safety, he said.

The economic stimulus law, known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, provided more than $17 billion in extra mandatory (non-annually appropriated) funding for Pell Grants and about $10 billion in additional funds for biomedical research at the NIH through 2011, among other spending designed to pump up the American economy. In passing their version of the 2010 spending bill for the education, labor and health agencies last week, leaders in the House of Representatives acknowledged the interplay between their annual appropriations bill and the stimulus measure, but still wound up proposing increases for many key programs beyond those proposed in the Senate.

In an interview with the Associated Press, David Obey, the Wisconsin Democrat who heads the House Appropriations Committee, said he believed it was too early for Congress to begin to rein in spending just because it poured money into the economic recovery program. "What we have to do ... is to figure out how to transition from the stimulus period to the time when you have to start throttling back," he told the AP. "And the biggest danger is that we will begin to do that a year or a year-and-a-half too soon."

Senate appropriators framed their spending decisions as less about fiscal restraint than about the wisest and fairest distribution of limited funds to many worthy programs, given the fact that some programs were advantaged in the economic recovery legislation.

Harkin and Cochran both said, for instance, that they would have preferred to give the National Institutes of Health more in 2010 than the $30.776 billion that President Obama recommended for the agency in his February budget, which is still $442 million more than the agency is receiving this year. (The House bill would provide an extra $500 million, for a total of $31.266 billion.) But Harkin noted that the NIH would still be benefiting throughout the 2010 fiscal year from the unexpected boost from the stimulus.

The Senate's approach on Pell Grants would, like the House's, allow the maximum Pell Grant to rise to $5,500, from the current $5,350, in 2010. But that will occur without any additional funds from Congress appropriators, because of the $490 per student in federal mandatory funds that Congress provided in 2007 budget reconciliation legislation and another $200 increase enabled by the economic stimulus measure.

Unlike the House-passed spending bill, which would provide significant budgetary increases for programs that support historically black and other minority-serving colleges, as well as for the TRIO and Gear Up programs that help prepare low-income middle and high school students for colleges, the Senate measure would fund virtually all programs for colleges and students at their 2009 levels, including Federal Work Study ($980 million) and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants ($757 million). The Perkins Loan Program would receive no new funds.

The one higher education-related program that would receive a meaningful boost under the Senate bill is AmeriCorps, which would receive $373 million in 2010. That's the amount President Obama requested to put the national service agency on a path to having 250,000 participants. The House legislation would give AmeriCorps $332 million.

 

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