Partisanship Reigns

First day of House debate on Higher Education Act bill devolves into finger pointing.
March 30, 2006

During the House of Representatives' long first day of debate about legislation to renew the Higher Education Act Wednesday, there was really only one moment of cooperation and agreement: when House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) thanked a departing staff member on the House education committee, Sally Lovejoy, for 25 years of service, and the committee's top Democrat, Rep. George Miller of California, chimed in with kind words of his own for Lovejoy.

The rest of the rhetoric as lawmakers began work on the key piece of higher education legislation probably left many of those who watched it longing for a different era, or perhaps a different political system entirely. Republican and Democratic lawmakers mostly talked past each other, with Democrats accusing Republicans of shortchanging students in the bill and squelching debate by restricting the number of amendments to the measure, and Republicans charging Democrats with distorting the goals of the legislation and devolving into unnecessary partisanship.  

In terms of actual legislating, very little got done Wednesday, in part because the House Rules Committee, which sets the terms of debates and voting for each piece of legislation, approved only 14, mostly minor amendments that could be offered on the House floor Wednesday.

Although Democrats complained that Republican leaders were purposely trying to limit their ability to try to alter the Higher Ed Act legislation -- “shutting down this process,” Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) said – the Rules Committee, in a highly unusual move, met late into the night Wednesday to craft a second rule that cleared the way for 8 of the other 100 or so proposed amendments to be debated and voted on today.

Included among them are a sweeping Democratic "substitute" that takes different approaches to many of the issues in the bill -- which faces near-certain defeat; a proposal to ease reporting requirements on college costs and strip language from the legislation that would allow states to begin accrediting colleges; another that would bar colleges from denying a student's transferred academic credits based solely on the accreditation of the "sending" institution; and one that would require colleges that receive federal funds to submit an annual report about whether and how they take race into account in admissions.

The only amendment of real substance that was considered Wednesday was offered by Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), and vigorously opposed by higher education groups. It sought to require colleges that receive funds through the Higher Education Act’s international education programs to report in a public database any donations they received from foreign sources.

While Burton and other supporters of the measure portrayed it as an anti-terrorism effort – a news release from Burton quoted David Horowitz as saying the amendment would prevent “the undue influence of foreign monies” – Burton also did not hide the fact that he was primarily targeting campus Middle East studies programs, some of which conservatives have accused of being hotbeds of Muslim radicalism.

“The underlying goal of the amendment is to draw attention to the anti-American, anti-Semitic, and anti-democratic rhetoric being preached at some college's ‘Middle East Studies’ centers,” said the Burton news release, which featured a line at the top boasting that the “American Jewish Congress strongly supports disclosure.”

College groups lobbied hard against the Burton measure, and it was defeated soundly, by a vote of 306 to 120.

Most of the rest of Wednesday’s consideration of the H.R. 609, which its Republican sponsors called the “College Access and Opportunity Act of 2005,” revolved around whether it would live up to its name.

Rep. Howard P. (Buck) McKeon, who headed the House Education and the Workforce Committee's higher education panel until succeeding Boehner as chairman of the whole education panel last month, said that the bill would do many things to help students, families and colleges alike, including making Pell Grants available year-round and trying to hold the line on tuition increases that are pushing families beyond their means. “Students, parents and taxpayers have the right to know that federal dollars are being invested in a way that responds to the market place,” he said.

Republican leaders, McKeon said, had worked with lawmakers across the aisle to try to improve the legislation. But now the Democrats had chosen to “play fast and loose with the facts, McKeon said, adding that he was “sad that you’ve decided to make this partisan now.”

But Democrats said it was they who should feel let down, because the Higher Ed Act legislation crafted mainly by Republicans -- especially coming on the heels of a budget reconciliation measure Congress enacted in December, which they said will raise loan costs for many students -- represents “another step backward in retreat from affordability and access,” Rep. Timothy Bishop (D-N.Y.) argued.

Bishop, a former provost of Southampton College, said that in addition to providing little in the way of new funds for students (calling for a mere $200 increase in the ceiling for the maximum Pell Grant over five years, for instance), the legislation would ratchet up federal involvement in higher education decision making, which he suggested was ironic coming from a Republican-led Congress.

“The federal government should not be in the business of telling colleges and universities that we know better than them about the price of tuition, about transfer of credit, about academic freedom,” Bishop said, referring to various provisions in the legislation that would impose new requirements on academic institutions. “It’s not for us to be dictating, and it’s insulting to the colleges.”

Bishop argued that it was also ironic that at the same time the bill “shows a lack of confidence in nonprofit higher education, it shows strong confidence in the for-profit sector,” evidenced by several changes that would result in “less accountability and oversight for that sector” and “relaxed safeguards” that protect students from fraud.

The House is scheduled to continue debate on the higher education bill this morning.


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