Congress to Colleges: Bush Budget is DOA

February 15, 2005

Put a bunch of college officials in a room the week after the release of the federal budget proposal, and it's not hard to tell what it contained. Lots of money, lots of smiles (O.K., that doesn't happen a lot).

With a budget like last week's -- full of hundreds of millions of dollars in proposed cuts to programs that colleges hold dear -- the mood is one of uncertainty and frustration. And that was evident Monday at the National Legislative Summit put on annually by the Association of Community College Trustees and American Association of Community Colleges.

But at a session featuring staff members from three leading members of Congress, which was nominally supposed to be about the pending renewal of the Higher Education Act and two other job-training laws, the legislative aides lowered the collective blood pressure of questioners in the room by asserting that Congress would reject most of President Bush's proposed cuts.

"There is bipartisan disgust at this portion of the budget," Jane Oates, education adviser to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), said of the president's proposals to eliminate all spending on the Perkins vocational education programs, Gear Up, two segments of the TRIO programs for low-income students, and the Perkins Loan Program, and to slash funds for adult education. "Nobody in the world could look at the outcomes we've seen for some of these programs and eliminate" them.

Getting a Kennedy aide to criticize proposed cuts in education programs isn't hard, and may not, in and of itself, be representative. But assistants to two Republican lawmakers echoed Oates's comments, if in slightly softer terms.

"I don't think my boss would ever support" elimination of the Perkins vocational education program and the two TRIO programs, Upward Bound and Talent Search, said Lindsay Lovlien, legislative assistant to Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), who is a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, which oversees education programs but does not set spending for them. Lovlien said that her talks with fellow aides to Republican senators left her with the clear impression that "we aren't quite in love with the president's proposals."

(Lovlien noted that most Republican lawmakers were silent in the days after President Bush released his budget. Oates, the Kennedy aide, said Republicans have to be careful about publicly talking down the ideas of a Republican administration, just as she and her boss sought to minimize conflict with the Clinton White House. "It was very difficult then for our office to come out publicly and attack things," she said, adding that she was happy to do the talking now for her GOP colleagues.)

Along those lines, the lone House of Representatives staffer, an aide to Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers (D-Mich.), offered gentler criticism of the president's budget plan. The aide said it was "unclear in the House if the president has support" for his education budget proposals. The Ehlers aide noted that Rep. Michael R. Castle of Delaware, a leading Republican on the Education and the Workforce Committee, had expressed opposition last week to some of the president's cuts. Castle said in a news release that some of the programs slated for elimination "have so much support in Congress that I believe the funding will be restored." House members, the Ehlers aide said, "take the president's budget as a suggestion or plan."

Tension With For-Profit Colleges

The panelists did talk about things other than the budget, including their original topic: Congressional efforts to renew the Higher Education Act, the Perkins vocational education law, and the Workforce Investment Act. 

Aides to all three lawmakers said they expected their bosses to oppose efforts during the renewal of the Higher Education Act to create a "single definition" of an institution of higher education in a way that would allow for-profit colleges to compete for certain federal funds that are now restricted to nonprofit institutions. Lovlien said Ensign "doesn't see how we can put these two groups on the same playing field," and the Ehlers aide said the Michigan Congressman views for-profit institutions and community colleges as "totally different animals." 

The legislative aides differed in their estimates of when -- and even whether -- Congress would pass a bill this year to extend the Higher Education Act, which was already pushed back from last year. The House aide was more optimistic than the Senate assistants; Lovlien said that given "all the labor and pension issues" on her committee, "time will dwindle away more quickly than a lot of us would hope."

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