Block That Regulation!

House spending bill would block rating system, gainful employment and other regulations, provide funding increases for NIH and TRIO programs.

June 17, 2015

Take your higher education regulations and shove them, Obama administration.

Republicans in the House of Representatives didn't use exactly those words in the 2016 spending bill for the Department of Education they released Tuesday, but the message they delivered couldn't have been much clearer.

The bill drafted by Republican leaders of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees spending for education, health and labor programs would bar the Education Department from using any of its appropriated funds to carry out existing regulations related to "gainful employment" for graduates of vocational programs, state authorization, teacher preparation, and the credit hour, and to implement President Obama's envisioned system to rate colleges and universities.

Essentially, it would block virtually all efforts by the Obama administration to hold colleges more accountable for how they use federal funds, which Republican lawmakers (and many college officials) have opposed as overreaching, misdirected and unlikely to work. Republicans have opposed most of the initiatives previously, but now that they control both houses of Congress, they are in a better position to actually block some of them -- or at least force President Obama to horse-trade for some of them in negotiations over the spending measures.

Administration officials, not surprisingly, characterized the House action as a move to undermine taxpayer protections, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan -- as he did last week in announcing new avenues to debt relief for student borrowers -- cranked up his anti-for-profit-college rhetoric in blasting the House bill's blockade of gainful employment rules.

“With students across the country reeling from the predatory behavior of failed and fraudulent ‘career’ colleges, it’s truly mind-boggling that House Republicans are still fighting tooth and nail to protect schools that take advantage of students and leave taxpayers with the bill,” Duncan said in a statement. “Make no mistake: a vote for this proposal is a vote to leave students in the dark and taxpayers holding the bag. Both deserve better.”

Beyond the policy roadblocks the bill would impose, the 2016 spending legislation would provide somewhat surprising increases for some programs important to colleges and universities, given the GOP's overall push to reduce federal spending.

The House Republican bill would bolster the budget of the National Institutes of Health by $1.1 billion over what the biomedical research agency is receiving this year, to $31.2 billion. That is $100 million more than President Obama requested.

In addition, programs designed to help disadvantaged youth attend college would get a boost, with the bill proposing an increase of $60.2 million (to $900 million) for the TRIO programs and $21 million more (to $322 million) for GEAR UP.

Under the measure, the maximum Pell Grant would grow to $5,915, but that rise would occur because of a previously enacted increase in mandatory budget funds. To the contrary, the House bill would use up to $370 million in surplus Pell funds left over from the 2015 fiscal year to fund other priorities in the legislation, much to the dismay of some college leaders.

"We are deeply concerned about the use of Pell funds to meet other priorities," David S. Baime, vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges, said via email. Baime said the use of the funds was dangerous for community colleges because when shortfalls in Pell funding occur, as one almost inevitably will, they "have resulted in damaging eligibility changes to our students."

The House legislation would also cut almost 10 percent from the budget for workforce training programs and slash spending for the National Labor Relations Board, which has been increasingly active in trying to expand rights for workers in higher education and beyond.

Another measure approved by a House spending subcommittee Tuesday would keep 2016 funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities at its 2015 level, $146 million.


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