Senate Strands Study Abroad Bill

Widely supported legislation to enhance international education is entangled in symbolic debate on Capitol Hill.
July 29, 2008

Some in the higher education lobby were hoping that a package of Congressional legislation would be their ticket to establishing a federal program designed to pour funds into and otherwise encourage undergraduate study abroad programs. That "omnibus" measure, however, got a flat tire late Monday afternoon in one of the Senate’s final sessions before its summer recess, stranding all 35 of its related bills on the debate floor.

A motion to invoke cloture, or put an end to extended debate and work toward a final decision on a matter, failed by a 52-40 vote in which 60 votes were needed.

The Simon Study Abroad Foundation Act -- which honors the memory of the late Democratic Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois -- is one of the many bills tied together by Democratic Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate majority leader, into his Advancing America’s Priorities Act. Aside from the Simon Act, Reid’s proposed combined legislation includes bills that promote specific medical research, protect children from online exploitation and advocate certain foreign policy revisions, among other bills introduced by Republicans and Democrats alike.

Reid packaged the bills in response to recent legislation-blocking tactics by Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who often votes against hefty spending bills and views this set as a distraction from debating energy policy. Each of the 35 bills in Reid’s package passed the House of Representatives either by voice or significant roll-call vote. Many tout past action on these individual bills as "bipartisan" and express frustration with the actions of those -- like Senator Coburn -- who have opposed their passage.

“Under normal circumstances, they would have passed the Senate through a simplified and expedited unanimous consent process and become law,” Reid said in a news release before the failed cloture vote. “These bills address important American priorities, have broad -- virtually unanimous -- bipartisan support, yet all have fallen victim to just one or two Republicans.”

When the Congressional Budget Office reported to Reid that his recent legislation would cost $10 billion to implement over the next five years, Coburn wrote Reid a letter suggesting that $45 billion in federal spending that he considered wasteful could be used to offset the costs of carrying out his omnibus package. Coburn, known for holding numerous pieces of legislation from reaching the debate floor out of symbolic objections, has not openly expressed his displeasure with any of the specific bills in Reid’s omnibus. He said in a recent statement that he views it as a distraction from the Senate’s current energy debate.

“Even though I oppose moving off of energy at this time, I have offered in good faith to limit debate on the Majority Leader’s omnibus package of unrelated items,” Coburn said before the failed cloture vote, which would have limited debate. “Most of the bills in this package could pass today if the Majority Leader would take the simple step of doing what every American family does every day and agree to live within our means.”

This debate among senators concerning spending and energy policy, however, has temporarily stalled a piece of higher education legislation advocated by many. The Simon Act, according to detailed reports from NAFSA: Association of International Educators, is supported by more than 35 higher education and student exchange groups. The group put out a “legislative alert” before the cloture vote, urging its members to contact their representatives to vote for the measure.

Another major advocate of the act is the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, a nonprofit organization that lobbies on behalf of its 218 member institutions. Jennifer Poulakidas, the organization’s vice president for Congressional and governmental affairs, said NASULGC has been working closely with the co-sponsors of the bill in the House of Representative and the Senate since it was introduced in 2007.

There has been significant interest in boosting federal aid for undergraduate study abroad programs since a 2005 report suggested that American colleges should significantly increase the number of students they send abroad. The Commission on the Abraham Lincoln Study Abroad Fellowship Program, which considered the state of study abroad programs in the U.S., suggested that the number of American undergraduates who study abroad be increased from 225,000 to one million, Poulakidas said. The Simon Act, she added, takes cues from the report and references it many times, especially in its attempt to promote the option of study abroad among non-traditional students.

“What the bill and the report try to do is focus on students who are lower income, have a minority background or are studying math or science,” Poulakidas said. “These are the types of students [for whom] it’s difficult to take a semester away. The typical study abroad student is white, upper-middle income and a female in the humanities or social sciences. This looks to expand this demographic by looking at everyone else and reaching out to them.”

The Simon Act would also attempt to promote study abroad locations that are less popular among students, Poulakidas added, noting that most students study in Western Europe. Seventy-five percent of the expanded resources of the act would award competitive grants to colleges and universities who apply and 25 percent of the Simon funds would go directly toward student scholarships. The bill would not actually provide any funds; those would eventually have to be appropriated directly by Congress.

Considering the uncertain future of the Simon Act, Poulakidas expressed her frustration with the Congressional process but continued support for the bill.

“If it weren’t for these very few senators, I’m quite confident this would have been passed and enacted into law right now,” Poulakidas said of Coburn and others. “The crying shame is that nothing in this package is an issue. There are a couple of senators that have a problem with these bills, but I certainly believe that an overwhelming majority of the U.S. Senate believes that these various bills should be enacted if it weren’t for a very whole different set of issues that has come into play."


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