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The Senate's Budget Approach

December 15, 2010

WASHINGTON -- Senate leaders on Tuesday unveiled an omnibus spending bill to fund the government's operations for the 2011 fiscal year that they say would sustain the maximum Pell Grant at $5,550 (staving off a threatened cut by funding an existing shortfall) and boost funds for the National Institutes of Health by $750 million over the 2010 level.

The latter fact is one major reason why higher education leaders would prefer the Senate legislation to the yearlong continuing resolution that the House passed last week -- others include the hundreds and hundreds of directed "earmarks" (and the tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars represented by those earmarks) that the Senate legislation would channel to individual colleges and universities for pet projects requested by their elected representatives.

The 2011 fiscal year begin Oct. 1, without Congress passing any of the 12 appropriations bills needed to fund the government's operations for the year. Democratic leaders in the lame-duck 111th Congress are scurrying to pass a budget for the year before they limp home for the holidays (and taking that task out of the hands of a new Congress that has indicated that it will be less amenable to spending federal money). The two chambers are currently on different tracks toward how to do that, with the House favoring a continuing resolution that would fund most federal programs at their 2010 levels, and senators preferring passage of an all-inclusive "omnibus" bill. The Senate's approach, advocates for it said, would give lawmakers much more flexibility to emphasize priorities and shift funds among specific programs.

“While I appreciate the work that the House has done in producing a full year Continuing Resolution, I do not believe that putting the government on autopilot for a full year is in the best interest of the American people,” Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said in a news release.

To the relief of many college officials, both pieces of legislation would provide $5.7 billion to close a shortfall in the Pell Grant Program, ensuring that -- with the help of mandatory budget funds Congress provided in last spring's Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act -- the maximum grant would remain at $5,550. "Without addressing this shortfall, the Fiscal Year 2011 maximum award of $5,550 will likely be slashed by at least $845, or more than 15 percent, undermining the commitment recently made by Congress to our nation’s students," the Committee for Education Funding warned in a letter to senators this week. Details are sketchy, but it appears that most other student aid programs would remain at their 2010 levels under the Senate measure, as in the House's.

Many programs important to higher education would fare better under the Senate's plan than under the House's. Foremost among them is the biomedical research program at the National Institutes of Health, which would remain flat at the 2010 level of $31 billion under the House's continuing resolution but rise by $750 million under the Senate measure.

"Failure to complete action on an FY11 omnibus funding measure would slow progress on developing new therapies for individuals with cancer, diabetes, and other illnesses, squander invaluable scientific opportunities, and damage the United States' standing as the world leader in medical research," the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology said in urging the Senate to pass the legislation.

Other research programs would benefit, too. The National Science Foundation would receive $7.34 billion under the Senate measure, $418 million more than it received in 2010. "The total includes $5.9 billion for research, $157 million for research equipment and facilities, and $900 million for education activities," the Appropriations Committee said in its summary of the bill.

Here are highlights of how other programs important to higher education would fare under the Senate bill:

  • The legislation would provide healthy increases for job training and work force education -- a priority, given the economic downturn., said Sen. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who heads the subcommittee that allocates spending on health, education and labor programs. The measure would increase spending on state grants for work force training by $141 million, to $3.1 billion, including funds for a new set of "Workforce Innovation Funds," aimed at bringing the Departments of Labor and Education together to award competitive grants.
  • The measure would provide significant increases -- which the Senate appropriations panel pegged at $224 million over 2010 -- for Health and Human Services Department programs that train health care workers. Health care workforce shortages are likely to increase as baby boomers age and access to health care expands. These shortages are particularly striking in a time of record unemployment and a shrinking middle class. The bill includes $82.5 million, an increase of $44 million, for primary care training activities; $292 million, an increase of $48 million, for nurse training and retention; $53 million, an increase of $20.6 million, for oral health care training; and $43.6 million, an increase of $18.7 million, for nurse faculty loan forgiveness.
  • The bill includes $82.5 million, an increase of $44 million, for primary care training activities; $292 million, an increase of $48 million, for nurse training and retention; $53 million, an increase of $20.6 million, for oral health care training; and $43.6 million, an increase of $18.7 million, for nurse faculty loan forgiveness.
  • The National Endowments for the Humanities and for the Arts would each receive $170 million under the Senate plan, $2.5 million above their levels for 2010 and $8.7 million more than President Obama requested for each of the agencies.
  • The bill would provide sufficient funds to AmeriCorps to increase to 94,000 from 87,000 the number of participants in the national service program.

A quick review of the lists of earmarks that lawmakers would provide to constituents through the Senate measure -- the House has vowed not to make such directed grants -- finds that many colleges and universities would be beneficiaries. Mississippi State University and the University of Mississippi show up repeatedly in the list of earmarks for the Commerce-Justice-Science Departments, while scores of institutions appear in a search of the list for the Departments of Education, Labor and Health and Human Services.

Hopeful recipients of earmarks are counting on divisions within the Republican Party over the wisdom of earmarks to drive passage of the bill with the contested grants included.

 

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