A House of Representatives panel presented a bipartisan gift to educators, researchers and college students on Thursday when it approved legislation that would significantly increase the maximum Pell Grant and support for the National Institutes of Health in the 2008 fiscal year, while at the same time protecting other student financial aid programs whose funding the Bush administration has proposed cutting off completely.
The 2008 spending bill passed the newly Democratically controlled appropriations subcommittee that allocates funds for health, education and jobs programs without a single "nay," illustrating a spirit of bipartisanship in marked contrast to last year’s vote along party lines .
The bill would raise the maximum Pell Grant to $4,700, a $390 increase over the 2007 level that would add $2 billion to the program’s cost. The increase, which would represent the largest for the program in nearly a decade, is not accompanied by the administration’s requested cuts of the Perkins Loan and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants Programs, which would be financed at their 2007 levels under the House legislation.
"I think the bottom line is the bill provides one of the largest increases for Pell in the history of the program," said Cheryl Smith, staff director for the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies .
The Association of American Universities also welcomed the outcome. "This legislation provides greater college opportunity for millions of needy college students, whose participation in higher education is an essential ingredient of American competitiveness," the association’s president, Robert M. Berdahl, said in a statement Thursday.
President Bush's 2008 budget plan in February  had proposed increasing the maximum Pell Grant to $4,600, an increase the administration trumpeted at the time as the largest in 30 years. (Congress since increased the maximum grant to $4,310 in its 2007 spending measure.) But the proposal drew fire from college leaders and Congressional Democrats because it would have paid for the increase in part by eliminating or slashing funds for other favored programs, including SEOG and Perkins.
The legislation approved by the House subcommittee on Thursday, which is the first step in the Congressional part of the federal appropriations process, managed to protect the White House-targeted programs.
The National Institutes of Health would also receive a 2.6-percent funding increase over last year, the second such rise in a row, which would allow the biomedical research agency to add at least 545 research grants and permit the average value of new grants to increase after a two-year freeze.
The AAU appreciated the rise in NIH funding, seeing it as a first step toward possible further increases, while the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology openly criticized it for not being enough. "This is the fourth year we’ve seen a proposal for NIH funding that fails to keep pace with inflation. The proposal is significantly lower than the 6.7-percent increase recommended by FASEB and the broader biomedical research community," said Leo Furcht, the group’s president.
The Bush administration has threatened a veto if Congressional spending bills exceed his own request, and this one does, by more than $10 billion, setting up a potential showdown. Given the bipartisan nature of the appropriations agreement and the popularity of education and health programs among the public, however, it is uncertain whether Bush would risk spending political capital by following through on his pledge.
"We may have to do a potential veto override on the Hill in the future, and I think this mark will be worth fighting for," said Cynthia A. Littlefield, director of government relations for the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities.
Despite the general agreement over the subcommittee's bill, Rep. John E. Peterson of Pennsylvania, a Republican, expressed concern that there wasn’t enough support for vocational and technical education programs, which were left flat from last year (though significant cuts proposed by the White House were rebuffed by the House panel).
"The thing that bothers me about the whole issue is that we’re in a technology world," he said. State grants for vocational and adult education, funds that flow heavily to community colleges, would hold steady at $1.2 billion and $589 million, respectively.
Other education programs of wide interest would receive the following treatment:
- The College Work Study program would be funded at the president’s requested level of $980.5 million, up just barely from last year.
- The TRIO outreach program for disadvantaged students would receive a 4.8-percent increase from both the Bush budget and 2007.
- GEAR UP would receive a $20 million increase, to $323.4 million.
- Funds for historically black colleges and Hispanic-serving institutions also would grow, both up nearly 5 percent to $249.5 million and $99.5 million, respectively.
At the same time, the subcommittee's plan would provide a modest boost to the health professions programs of the Health Resources and Services Administration -- still more than 20 times the president’s recommended $9.7 million allocation. The White House has taken aim at those programs, which train doctors and other health professionals, repeatedly in recent years.