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Could Be Worse

February 10, 2011

WASHINGTON -- Shhh. Don't tell, and they'll never it admit it publicly. But college officials are (very quietly) feeling okay -- at least for now -- about how Congressional Republicans would treat the programs that matter most to higher education in their first whack at the federal budget.

Things could change in a snap. But as House of Representatives appropriators offered their first glimpse Wednesday at how they would begin to carry out their promise to slash federal spending, they generally treated student financial aid and research programs gently, as President Obama had urged them to do.

The "partial" list of spending cuts that Representative Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said his House Appropriations Committee would seek to make in the continuing resolution that would fund the federal government through the rest of the 2011 fiscal year did not include the Pell Grant or other financial aid programs, and it would fund the National Institutes of Health at its 2010 level of $30 billion.

Some other science programs would appear (from the skimpy details available last evening) to be facing meaningful cuts. The list, for instance, calls for a $1.1 billion reduction for the Department of Energy's Office of Science, which, after the roughly $200 million increase that President Obama proposed for 2011, would amount to a cut of $883 million.

But the National Science Foundation might actually be in for an increase from its 2010 level. The House list describes NSF as awaiting a cut of $139 million, but that would be from President Obama's 2011 request for the agency, which sought a $550 million (or 8 percent) increase. So even with $139 million less, the agency would seem to be in line for a more than $400 million boost.

Perhaps the most surprising numbers in the House's target list, at least as it relates to higher education, were those for the National Endowments for the Humanities and for the Arts. Given that the Republican Study Committee had proposed eliminating both agencies in the Spending Reduction Act of 2011, its blueprint for wiping out the deficit, many supporters of the cultural endowments have been expecting the worst for the agencies as Republicans began to assert their will in the new Congress.

But in this first pass at doing so, House leaders appear to have given the NEH and the NEA a relative pass. The appropriations panel's list says the committee will seek a $6 million cut from each agency, presumably on top of the $6.2 million reduction that President Obama himself proposed from the agencies' $167.5 million allocation for 2010.

While that certainly won't satisfy advocates who've been urging an upturn in support for the humanities, it is likely -- if it holds -- to relieve them.

The other big cut proposed by House Republicans that could have relevance for colleges and universities is the $2 billion reduction the appropriations panel suggests for job training. Committee aides could not be reached to explain where those cuts might come from, and whether and to what extent that money would come out of programs important to community and career colleges.

Just how "partial" the list is -- and whether other higher education-related programs still end up on the chopping block in the continuing resolution -- could be clearer as soon as today, when House leaders unveil their full legislation. That will be followed by a parallel bill from the Democrat-controlled Senate, setting up a potential showdown.

And then next Monday, President Obama proposes his 2012 budget, beginning another major round of deliberations.

 

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