Putting the 'Lame' in Lame Duck Session

November 14, 2006

There is no shortage of higher education issues on Congress's agenda, chief among them renewal of the Higher Education Act, the law that governs most federal student aid and other college programs, and the possible extension of several higher education tax breaks.

But as lawmakers get back to business this week for what little remains of the 109th Congress, it seems increasingly likely that they will do as little as possible, focusing almost exclusively on the spending bills needed to keep the federal government operating.

The ultimate outcome of those appropriations bills has great significance for higher education – including a potential $100 increase in the maximum Pell Grant and funds for President Bush’s American Competitiveness Initiative. But college lobbyists and others say odds are good that even on that front, lawmakers may decide to punt, passing only short-term legislation that funds the government temporarily, and leaving the hard decisions until January or February, when the 110th Congress convenes with Democrats in control.

The longer-term, and ultimately more important, questions revolve around what will happen when the new Congress gathers next January, with a new party in charge.

How aggressively will Democrats push their plan to boost college affordability through a mix of Pell Grant increases, student loan interest rate cuts and sweetened college tax breaks? Will the changeover in the House and Senate lessen the odds that the Education Department will turn to Congress to carry out the agenda of the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education? Will the Democrats step up their scrutiny and oversight of the Bush administration’s policies and practices on student loans?

Trying to anticipate the answers to those questions are a fool’s errand, given that even the Democratic lawmakers themselves probably don’t know the answers to those questions right now. So focusing on the issues that are immediately at hand, what of relevance to higher education will happen in the waning days of the 109th Congress, which might be just this week? Probably very little, several college lobbyists and other Congress watchers agree. Republican lawmakers, having been handed a painful defeat at the polls, are eager to get out of town and regroup, and many of their staff members are busy looking for new jobs. And Democrats, the thinking goes, are focused on figuring out who will lead them, hiring aides to staff their newfound committee majorities, and planning their agenda for January.

In that climate, niceties like Senate-sponsored legislation that would extend through 2010 an expiring federal tax deduction for college expenses are unlikely to draw meaningful attention in the expiring Congress. The same is true for broad legislation designed to strengthen American competitiveness. (One also wonders whether the Senate will find time to confirm Sara Martinez Tucker, who is supposed to lead the Education Department's efforts to carry out the recommendations of the Spellings commission, as the new under secretary of education.)

The only legislation that each Congress is obligated to pass are the appropriations measures that finance the federal government’s operations, but even those face an iffy future. Congress has passed just two of the 11 (12 in the Senate) spending bills for the 2007 fiscal year that began October 1, and lawmakers have not completed work on the measures with the greatest implications for the broadest array of higher education interests – those that finance the Education Department, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation and other science agencies. A continuing resolution that has financed the government at the 2006 spending levels expires Friday.

Several scenarios are possible. The likeliest, based on interviews with multiple college lobbyists and Congressional aides, is that lawmakers pass another continuing resolution that extends the government's operations at 2006 levels through January or February. Then, the new Congress could either extend the measure through the rest of the 2007 fiscal year at that level, or craft an "omnibus" appropriations bill, lumping together all the remaining legislation, that might allow the Democrats, within the overall budget constraints they face, to emphasize certain priorities.

College lobbyists are hopeful, but not especially optimistic, that the $100 increase in the maximum Pell Grant that was contained in the spending legislation a House of Representatives committee approved in June will survive. The comparable Senate legislation contained no such increase, but on the brighter side, both chambers called for restoring cuts that President Bush had proposed in numerous financial aid programs.

They are more encouraged by the possibility that omnibus legislation might include funds that both houses endorsed to carry out key elements of President Bush's American Competitiveness Initiative, which would start the government down the path of doubling spending on basic research in the physical sciences over the next decade.

Looming, however, is the prospect that condensing the remaining appropriations bills into one omnibus makes it easier for Congress -- as it did last year -- to impose an across-the-board cut to all programs covered by the legislation. That, as one college lobbyist put it, "is where the meat axes start chopping."

While supporters of education and other social programs might view Democrats as less likely than their Republican counterparts to take that kind of action, the new majority just might, some Congress watchers speculate, want to show in their early days in control that they know what fiscal restraint is.

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