Setting Up a Showdown on Spending

House committee approves education appropriations bill, with increased funding for Pell and other programs left intact.
July 12, 2007

Legislation that would provide funding for labor, health and education programs in the 2008 fiscal year passed the full House of Representatives Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, with action on the House floor possible as soon as next week on legislation that President Bush is threatening to veto.

Portions of the bill addressing programs for higher education, including the Pell Grant program, were virtually unchanged from the version drafted last month by the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies. In the bill, which is currently set to go to the House floor on July 18, the maximum Pell Grant would be $4,700, a $390 increase over the 2007 spending measure that set the current year amount at $4,310, and $100 above President Bush's request for Pell in 2008. The legislation also includes a 2.6-percent increase in funding for the National Institutes of Health, a major source of funds for academic research.

Also intact is a veto-proof provision, known as a "budget limitation," that would prevent the Department of Education from using any of the bill's funds to enforce or implement proposed federal regulations on college and university accreditation.

A summary of the bill's provisions also notes that the bill would require that articles based on research financed by the National Institutes of Health be provided to the National Library of Medicine within 12 months of publication so they can be made available to the public.

Another provision would require the Secretary of Education to put in place procedures to vet conflicts of interest or bias among department employees, peer reviewers, advisory council members, contractors and subcontractors, and would direct the department's inspector general to audit and certify the adequacy of such procedures.

Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said that the bill was an attempt to begin to erase "deficits" in education access, but that "we cannot erase those deficits in a year." The focus of that effort was the Pell increase, intended to counteract a 42-percent rise in the cost of attending a four-year public university between 2001 and 2006, among statistics Obey cited. Other programs received mostly flat funding or slight increases over last year on the discretionary side of the budget.

"Unlike the president’s bill, we restore all of the cuts the president attempted to make in all of the other student aid programs except work study," Obey said. That could set up a potential showdown, since the $151.5 billion legislation -- which would represent a 4.8-percent increase over 2007 -- exceeds President Bush's budget request and has already triggered a veto threat from the White House.

The committee took up only one amendment related to higher education Wednesday. The panel backed an uptick in spending for the state career and technical education grants that would raise its budget to $1.21 billion in 2008, $25 million more than it is receiving this year. This is another of the programs President Bush had proposed cutting drastically in his 2008 budget plan.

Beyond that, the bill closely hewed to the version approved by the subcommittee last month, a fact attributable in large part to Obey's status as chairman of both. Among other things, the measure would provide more funds for the GEAR UP program and a 4.8-percent boost to the TRIO outreach program.

"We just couldn’t be more pleased about both the numbers and the inclusion of the accreditation language," said Becky H. Timmons, assistant vice president for government relations at the American Council on Education. "We think the House bill is worthy of support and we would love to see it pass overwhelmingly by a veto-proof margin on the House floor."

Securing at least 290 votes, enough to overcome a veto, will be the goal of a joint effort from both the higher education and health lobbies, according to Cynthia A. Littlefield, director of federal relations at the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. A letter dated July 10, jointly signed by the Coalition for Health Funding and the Committee for Education Funding and sent to representatives on the Hill, lists at least 1,000 groups and organizations that support the appropriations bill.

"We’re postured well to go to the House floor, and we just hope we can do well in trying to have a really good turnout," Littlefield said.


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