'Tight' Bill, Modest Gains

June 20, 2007

Less than two weeks after the House Appropriations subcommittee for education programs delivered a major potential boost to the maximum Pell Grant and the National Institutes of Health, the mirroring Senate panel delivered significantly less in its own 2008 spending bill Tuesday.

As in the House measure, the NIH would make off with the largest share of the bill’s more than $152 billion of allocated funding -- but, with a little less money to go around, most higher-ed programs would see modest increases over last year, or level funding.

The measure, approved by the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, also includes language that would block the Department of Education from enforcing its proposed regulations on higher education accreditation. Using a similar tactic, the House version included a "limitation" that would prevent the department from carrying out any forthcoming accreditation rules.

A growing chorus from both sides of the aisle in Congress has criticized the Education Department for exceeding its authority in trying to change federal rules governing accreditation without a concomitant change in federal law. Members of Congress have already begun to take up many of the same accreditation issues on their own as they consider legislation to extend the Higher Education Act (see related article).

The Senate panel proposed leaving the maximum Pell Grant award at $4,310, a level Congress set in its catchall spending bill for the 2007 fiscal year -- far less than the $4,600 President Bush requested in February for his 2008 budget plan and than the $4,700 the House proposed in its 2008 spending bill.

But the committee members did so on the assumption that they will ultimately be able to increase the maximum grant to at least the amount Bush sought, through the forthcoming "budget reconciliation" legislation (to be drafted today by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee). Using the budget reconciliation tactic, Senate Democrats intend to slash subsidies to student loan providers -- under fire from members of Congress and because of several investigations into student lending practices -- and redirect the proceeds to increase grant and other funds for students.

President Bush has threatened to veto appropriations bills that exceed his budget, but "bipartisan" was the word of the moment during the drafting session in which the Senate subcommittee presented its 2008 spending bill for education, health and other programs, exceeding Bush’s request by more than $9 billion.

Still, the Senate had about $2 billion less to work with than the House, as determined by the Appropriations Committee’s allotted amount for education, health and labor. So while most programs received boosts in spending -- such as the NIH’s $1 billion, 3.5-percent increase to $29.9 billion (which is still below the rate of inflation, university advocates noted), and the more than $1 billion, 8.3 percent boost to Title I grants for public school improvement -- there was a consensus among the senators present that they wished they could have spent more.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the subcommittee’s chairman, called it a "tight bill," adding that he wished the measure could have provided even more for the NIH. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the senior Republican who has battled Hodgkin’s disease, emphasized the agency in his remarks and noted the real-dollar cuts it has received in recent years.

Other programs would keep funding at last year’s level or receive modest increases. The College Work Study program and Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants for needy students would get flat funding at last year’s levels under the Senate bill. So would Perkins Loans, at $65.5 million, which offer low interest rates for students with exceptional financial need.

The TRIO outreach program for disadvantaged students would get a boost of $30 million, while GEAR UP would receive a $10 million increase.

The measure now gets passed up to the full Senate Appropriations Committee, which will consider the bill tomorrow.

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