Given that it was considering hugely important legislation that determines how the government spends tens of billions of dollars a year on students and colleges, the House Education and the Workforce Committee made surprisingly few important decisions on Wednesday, because the guts of the bill -- which deals with federal student grant and loan programs -- was put off until today.
But that doesn't mean that Wednesday's session to amend the Higher Education Act lacked significance or entertainment value, offering moments of partisan grandstanding, efforts at compromise, and even some unintentional hilarity.
Among the highlights (and lowlights), the committee:
- Further narrowed a proposed change in the higher education law that would alter the status of for-profit colleges to give them access to more federal programs. Wednesday's vote, pushed by critics of commercial institutions, would bar for-profit colleges from competing for research and other funds managed by federal agencies other than the Education Department (Agriculture Department or National Science Foundation grants, for example) unless Congress specifically agrees to let them in at some future point.
- Engaged in extensive, pointed debate over a Democratic attempt to strip from the Higher Education Act a watered-down version of David Horowitz's Academic Bill of Rights, which opponents said still inappropriately lends credence to the idea that professors are regularly punishing students whose views differ from their own. The amendment's sponsors withdrew it after the committee's Republican leaders said they would work with Democrats to extend the resolution to protect professors whose political views come under attack from small groups of critical students.
- Rejected an amendment that would have gutted guidance the U.S. Education Department issued in March that lets colleges show they are meeting their obligations to give female athletes equitable opportunities under Title IX by giving students an e-mail survey asking about their sports interests.
- Gave reasonably serious consideration to an amendment by Rep. Charles Norwood (R-Ga.) that would have withdrawn funds from international education programs that engaged in "anti-American activities." Disbelieving Democrats repeatedly evoked the House Un-American Activities Committee and many Republican members looked embarrassed and shook their heads as Norwood, occasionally drawing titters from the audience, stuck to his guns in urging a crackdown against programs and professors who "teach distrust of America." The measure failed, but 10 of the panel's nearly 40 members voted for it.
Congress renews the Higher Education Act, the sprawling law that governs many college programs, about every five years, and as the legislation is transformed (usually in ways that both satisfy and displease various audiences) as it moves through the process. Last week, the House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on 21st Century Competitiveness approved  its version of the bill, focusing much of its attention on a thorny set of issues related to the status of for-profit institutions and largely leaving for this week's consideration by the full education committee an equally contentious array of proposed changes in the federal loan programs.
The full committee set those issues aside on Wednesday, but they are expected to provoke significant discussion and drama when the panel reconvenes today. Because the consideration of the Higher Education Act is unfolding at a time when Congress is also trying to deal with major budget cuts in a process known as "reconciliation," the education committee's Republican leaders are facing intense pressure to cut back the money available through the Higher Education Act.
Although the panel is trying to carve much of the $11 billion in savings it needs to produce out of the profits of lenders and other businesses in the student loan programs, it is also proposing raising some fees and rates for student borrowers, prompting complaints from student groups and Democrats. In his opening statement of Wednesday's hearing, the committee's top Democrat, Rep. George Miller of California, said the Republican majority's bill was a "shocking, unprecedented reversal in our commitment to higher education." Such partisan talk was relatively rare in Wednesday's mostly genial session, but it is likely to crank up today as the committee confronts proposed changes to the grant and loan programs.
In one of its most significant actions Wednesday, the committee reversed a vote that favored for-profit institutions at last week's subcommittee markup. The education committee's Republican leaders have proposed creating a “single definition” for an “institution of higher education” in the Higher Education Act, which currently has a separate description for for-profit institutions that lets them participate in the federal grant and loan programs but denies them access to other pools of federal education money, such as funds that are available to community colleges and institutions that serve significant numbers of minority students.
Democratic lawmakers, at the urging of nonprofit colleges who oppose the "single definition," came surprisingly close last week to stripping that provision from the bill, but ultimately fell short. The subcommittee approved one amendment that restricted access for for-profit institutions to the funds for minority serving institutions and community colleges, but it rejected a compromise offered by Rep. Michael N. Castle, a Delaware Republican, that would prevent for-profit institutions from competing for other federal funds unless the laws that govern those grant agencies were specifically amended to allow them to.
Castle reintroduced his amendment Wednesday, saying that while he opposed the single definition entirely, he recognized that opponents didn't have the votes to stop it. Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), the committee's chairman, has aggressively promoted the interests of for-profit institutions and last week fought attempts, including Castle's, to rein them in. But Wednesday, he grudgingly consented not to fight Castle again. "If your amendment passes, I guess it's not the end of the world," he said.
"Thank you for your lukewarm opposition," Castle said, as the committee approved his amendment by voice vote.
One issue emerged Wednesday that college groups had thought was largely settled. Last month, a group of higher education associations issued a statement  aimed at altering a resolution included in the Republican leaders' Higher Education Act legislation that mirrored the Academic Bill of Rights that is rattling around several state legislatures.  The House committee's leaders applauded the colleges' statement and largely incorporated it into the latest drafts of their bill. The language makes the point that academe is not monolithic ideologically and that colleges can -- without the government -- deal with professors (a distinct few, according to most academic leaders) who punish students for their views.
But at the urging of faculty unions and other groups that had not approved the statement,  Rep. John F. Tierney (D-Mass.) introduced an amendment Wednesday that aimed to drop the compromise language, which he said "interferes with the longstanding principles of academic autonomy." "There is no place for this kind of ideology in the Higher Education Act," Tierney said.
Added Rep. Timothy H. Bishop (D-N.Y.), a longtime administrator at Southampton College: "The fact that we are including this suggests that we are accepting the fiction that this is a problem."
As the Democrats spoke, Rep. Mark Souder, an Indiana Republican, looked like his head might explode. "It's embarrassing that people are going on record against this," he sputtered, characterizing the mistreatment of conservative students by liberal professors as a "sweeping and pervasive problem."
Students, he said, "should know that the United States Congress stands behind them."
The tide turned a bit when Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wisc.) said he thought a bigger problem were the "thought police" -- small groups of students at various campuses who are creating blacklists of professors whose views they don't agree with and trying to get the instructors fired. Souder said he "supposed that professors ought to have this right, too," and so Tierney withdrew his amendment "temporarily" with the understanding that Democrats and Republicans might work together to alter the bill's language to ensure that professors' free speech rights are protected, too.
No such agreement emerged on Norwood's proposal to cut back on anti-American activity, which would give a new international education advisory board  that the legislation would create the power to define and identify such activity. He said that many international studies programs in the United States "teach distrust of America" and "teach young Americans to be against their own country."
Asked repeatedly for examples, he demurred, drawing criticism from skeptical Democrats. "I am opposed to letting any committee of Americans define what is un-American for another group of Americans," said Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D-N.J.).
The committee took a few other actions Wednesday, including:
- Approving a measure that would create a new program to support graduate studies at institutions that serve large numbers of Hispanic students.
- Rejecting a proposal to allow predominantly black colleges to qualify for funds that are now reserved for institutions that are designed as "historically black."
Much more to come today -- come back tomorrow for an update.