House Panel Backs Higher Ed Bill

November 16, 2007

The House of Representatives Education and Labor Committee unanimously approved legislation to renew the Higher Education Act Thursday -- a measure about which college officials have ambivalent feelings.

The House panel backed the College Opportunity and Affordability Act (H.R. 4137) by a margin of 44 to 0, after voting on a half dozen amendments on which the committee ran out of time during its marathon 10-hour drafting session Wednesday at which it debated and considered much of the bill. In total, the panel adopted 27 amendments to the legislation that was originally introduced late last Friday afternoon, and the committee's fast track consideration of the behemoth bill -- voting on it three business days after the 747-page monster was introduced -- left the overarching impression that some lawmakers were voting on it and its amendments without completely understanding all of their implications.

The committee's Democratic and Republican leaders praised each other for their ability to work together in a relatively bipartisan manner, which stood in marked contrast to their contentious discussions two years ago when they considered an earlier version of the Higher Education Act legislation. “The road to higher education reform has been a long one, with many hard-fought battles," said Rep. Howard P. (Buck) McKeon (R-Calif.), the senior Republican on the committee. "It has taken time to build a coalition in support of these reforms, but the legislation is stronger because of it. Chairman [George] Miller [D-Calif.] deserves great credit for his willingness to work in a bipartisan fashion to develop a consensus bill."

The bill they produced is a mixed bag for colleges, and higher education groups remain generally noncommittal about it. with college leaders and lobbyists citing things that they both like and dislike about the measure. They are generally pleased by the high spending ceilings that the measure would set for many college programs, its call for a year-round Pell Grant, simplification of student aid application and delivery, and new programs for all sorts.

But they are deeply troubled by provisions aimed at shaming colleges that raise their tuitions by above average rates and scores of new reporting and other requirements that they say will increase their costs. Educause, the higher education technology association, is openly opposing language on illegal downloading that it says would inject the federal government into yet another area of college operations, and nonprofit colleges are upset about an 11th-hour change that stripped language from the bill that would have given colleges primary responsibility for deciding how to measure what their students learn.

Some of those and other issues may be revisited on the House floor, probably in December, or when lawmakers from the House and Senate meet -- probably early in 2008 -- to craft a compromise between the House measure and the parallel bill in the Senate.

Also Thursday, the full House failed to muster enough votes to override President Bush's veto of a 2008 spending bill for education, health and labor programs. Fifty-one Republicans joined 226 Democrats in voting to pass the bill, well short of the two-thirds majority needed to override the veto, despite vigorous lobbying by colleges and other groups.

Democratic leaders said they had begun working on an omnibus bill that would include the education, labor and health legislation and would split the difference in spending levels between the Congressionally passed bills and the president's budget proposal. Such a plan would mean about $750 million less money for the National Institutes of Health than is contained in the bill passed by Congress, among other things.

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