This is one of the busiest times of year on Capitol Hill, as Congress dives headlong into the coming year's federal budget along with all of its usual legislating (and politicking). And Sara Martinez Tucker probably couldn't be happier about that.
The U.S. under secretary of education appeared before the House of Representatives subcommittee that oversees spending on education programs Wednesday to present the Education Department's 2008 budget for higher education. In the context of federal budget season, "present" usually means defend, justify or take a beating for, especially when administration officials from one party appear before a Congressional committee controlled by the other one. Just ask Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, whose appearance Monday before the same House Appropriations Subcommittee Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies to discuss the department's entire budget plan was characterized by significant rancor and aggressive questioning from the Appropriations Committee's chairman, Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), mostly over elementary and secondary school issues.
So Tucker, for whom Wednesday marked her first such Congressional testimony since becoming under secretary in December, must have been bracing for a rough ride. And she had to have been relieved, if not downright elated, when Obey, because of conflicts involving a slew of other appropriations hearings and negotiations over legislation to supplement spending for the 2007 fiscal year, skipped the subcommittee hearing at the last minute, joining several other Democrats in absentia.
As a result, Tucker and the other department officials who testified at Wednesday's hearing -- including Grover J. (Russ) Whitehurst, director of the Institute for Education Sciences -- got relatively gentle treatment from the handful of lawmakers who did show up.
That doesn't mean there wasn't some pointed criticism about various department efforts: its plan to pay for its proposed increase in the maximum Pell Grant in part by cutting funds for other need-based aid and loan programs; its recent settlement that allowed a lender to keep $278 million in profits earned through an improper loophole; and its proposal to explore the creation of a possible national database of student academic records (Democratic colleagues said Obey would pose a set of questions about the proposed "student unit records" database to department officials in writing in the days to come). Lawmakers also grilled the officials on the department's stance toward a federal law that restricts students with drug convictions from receiving federal student aid.
But on the whole, Tucker self-assuredly explained and steadfastly defended the department's view that the best way to increase the representation of low-income students in higher education -- which she described as its most pressing priority -- was by improving the academic preparation of high school students by expanding the No Child Left Behind Program and by increasingly directing its financial aid funds into the new Academic Competitiveness Grants and especially into the Pell Grant Program, "a proven winner."
The administration's budget proposal for 2008 calls for what Tucker repeatedly noted was the "biggest increase in the Pell Grant in three decades," but it has been sharply criticized by many college officials for recommending elimination of the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant and Perkins Loan Programs, among others. Tucker said Wednesday, as administration officials have repeatedly, that most of the new funds for the Pell increase would come from cuts in subsidies for lenders in the guaranteed student loan programs.
"I believe the proposals in our 2008 budget, by broadening access for our neediest students, encouraging better preparation in high school, and targeting investments on the most effective programs, point the way forward to success," Tucker said.
In Obey's absence, the lawmakers who sat in on Wednesday's hearing offered their pet criticisms of various aspects of the administration's budget proposal. Rep. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) complained about a $17 million cut in funds for programs for Native Americans and Hawaiian Islanders. Tucker acknowledged the proposed reduction, but said that the department would nonetheless be able to sustain its support for institutions currently in the programs and even add a few recipients. Rep. Tim Ryan, an Ohio Democrat, objected to a proposed freeze in funds for the TRIO and Gear Up programs aimed at expanding students' preparation for college, which he said would amount to a cut given inflation.
Non-budgetary matters produced perhaps the tensest exchanges.
Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) questioned whether the department was perhaps exceeding its authority in contemplating changes in federal regulations governing accreditation and the transfer of academic credit. "Shouldn't Congress speak on this before the administration starts promulgating rules?" she asked. Tucker insisted that the department had no plans to "create rules without statutory language," but instead was just "trying to get clarity around" colleges' policies. "We're just asking campuses to be transparent about what [their policies are]," she said.
A Republican, Rep. Ralph Regula of Ohio, asked Tucker to explain the department's decision to let the National Education Loan Network keep $278 million in reimbursements that the department's inspector general said were paid to the lender improperly under a now-closed loophole in federal law. Tucker said she could not answer those questions now because the department is preparing a response to a broad information request that the head of the House education committee, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), made to the department this month.
And Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) came back at Tucker and her budget director, Thomas P. Skelly, several times to get them to clarify their answers to her questions about the drug provision on the federal student aid form. Hundreds of thousands of students have been denied federal aid because of the provision, which Congress narrowed in 2005 so that it bars aid only to students who are convicted of drug crimes while they are in college.
Tucker first told Lee that one of her primary goals was to drastically simplify the federal financial aid application, which she said deters many students and parents from seeking financial assistance. A department review has suggested that there are only "six pieces of information" that federal officials need to capture, and that "I can assure you that the six questions we need to determine [a student's] eligibility does not contain that question." Tucker's clear implication was that if she had her druthers, a revamped FAFSA form would drop the drug question.
When Lee's turn for questions came around again, she returned to the issue. When Tucker reiterated her view that the department "hopes to be able to change the form in future years," Lee said: "I'm asking you, would you all support within the context of your goals legislation to eliminate this question?"
Tucker seemed to know she was getting into dangerous territory. "While we at the department don't need this question, we can't commit on the part of the administration," she said.
"I'm asking, would you be advocates for us?" Lee asked.
"Candidly, as under secretary, I have to speak to the deputy secretary and secretary," Tucker said.
"Would you do that?" Lee pressed.
Tucker said she would, and the hearing ended genially.
Later Wednesday, though, across Capitol Hill, Democrats signaled their opposition to the Bush budget in a more formal way. Leaders of the Senate Budget Committee unveiled their own spending blueprint for 2008 that would provide $6 billion more funds for the U.S. Education Department than President Bush proposed in his budget plan. Explanatory documents released by the committee note that the Democrats' budget resolution includes significantly more money for Pell Grants, though it does not specify how much.
Congressional budget resolutions like this one, which the Senate panel will consider today (and which drew sharp criticism from Republicans on the Budget Committee as based on unrealistic assumptions), form the starting point for Congress's budget-setting process