From Your Lobbyist: HELP Committee and the Government Stays Open
October 1, 2019
Week of September 23-27
Chairman of Senate HELP Committee Releases Package of Higher Ed Bills: Despite the impeachment inquiry news sucking the air out of DC, it was a slow education news week. That is until, on Thursday, Senate HELP Committee Chair Lamar Alexander (R-TN) introduced a package of eight previously introduced and bipartisan bills, which he is calling the Student Aid Improvement Act of 2019. The legislation, if passed into law, would amend the Higher Education Act but not replace it completely. Included within this package would be the establishment of permanent mandatory funding of $255 million per year for Historically Black Colleges and Universities and other Minority Serving Institutions. Alexander has repeatedly refused two-year extensions for HBCU funding as he has sought a bigger deal on the Higher Education Act. The package would also incorporate changes designed to simplify the federal student financial aid forms and changes to Pell Grants for prisoners as well as to short term Pell.
In a floor speech, Chair Alexander said: “For the last five years, Senator Murray and I have been working on a bipartisan reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. We have held 30 hearings on everything from holding colleges accountable to campus safety to simplifying the student aid process. We have yet to reach an agreement on some issues, but on several important issues, these hearings have resulted in a number of bipartisan proposals to make college more affordable and worth students’ time and money. I am committed to continuing to work with Senator Murray to develop a larger, more comprehensive bipartisan bill, but right now, we have an opportunity to enact a package including several of the bipartisan proposals that have come from our process.” Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) has been seeking a comprehensive rather than piecemeal reauthorization of the Higher Education Act and reportedly expressed great frustration at Alexander’s introduction of this package of bills.
Most student groups, consumer protection groups, and many education organizations have expressed disappointment with the piecemeal package and have called on the HELP Committee to take a more comprehensive approach to HEA reauthorization, including addressing access and affordability, accountability, student borrower protections, debt relief, and campus safety – all issues which are not covered in Chairman Alexander’s proposed package. The package also does not incorporate the bipartisan/bicameral College Transparency Act that would lift the ban on student unit records and create more data around individual student outcomes, a bill which AYA strongly supports. Not surprisingly, the only groups supporting Alexanders “Student Aid Improvement Act of 2019” is the White House and for profit colleges. While the package may be passed by the Senate HELP Committee along party lines, it is unlikely to move much further and has no chance of being approved by the Democratic House as Chairman of the Education and Labor Bobby Scott (D-VA) has stated clearly time and time again that the House wants to pass a comprehensive overhaul of HEA.
Congress Passes Short Term Spending Bill, Averts Government Shutdown (For Now): After the FY 2020 LHHS-Ed bill (which funds many higher ed programs) stalled in the Senate because of a lack of agreement on the ban on “poison pill” riders that Congress agreed to in this summer’s budget deal and the very low allocations that the bill received to use for spending––as well as the failure for the Senate to pass any of its 12 spending bills before government funding expires on September 30th––Congress passed a short term extension of funding through November 21st and averted another government shutdown. The President is expected to sign it into law before Monday.
Just to recap how all of this went down: The first issue blew-up 2 weeks ago at the Labor HHS Education Appropriations Subcommittee mark-up for the FY2020 bill where Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) announced plans to introduce an amendment that Republicans claimed fell afoul of the agreed to ban on “poison pill” amendments. This caused the Subcommittee mark-up to be cancelled and the full Appropriations Committee mark-up, scheduled for later that week, to be cancelled subsequently. At this writing, there is no agreement between the parties as to what constitutes a “poison pill” rider––essentially something in the bill that has no bipartisan support and is extremely controversial to one party.
The second issue came to a head last week when Appropriations Committee Ranking Member Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced an amendment in Committee that would have increased the 302(b) allocations for the Labor HHS Education bill. Senate Democrats have complained loudly that the current allocation (plus additional budgetary gimmicks) would equal only a 1% increase in available funding over last year, leaving very little room for increases for education programs. Additionally, Senate Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Roy Blunt’s (R-MO) decision to spend the vast majority of that 1% on increasing NIH spending by $3 billion has left little for appropriators to spend on other programs. Leahy’s amendment failed on a party line vote.
Last week, Senate Republicans unveiled their version of the FY2020 Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations bill. As detailed below that bill provided level-funding for virtually all k-12 education programs but did provide a 2.2% or $135 increase for Pell grants, making the maximum Pell award $6,330 for the 2020-2021 school year. As it stands now, the Senate bill would provide $70.8 billion for the Department of Education compared to the $75.9 billion the House bill would provide.
Rather than trying to run it again through the normal committee process, Senate Appropriations Chair Richard Shelby (R-AL) decided to bypass the Appropriations Committee entirely and move the bill to the floor, coupling it with the bills covering Defense, Energy and Water funding. According to media reports, he suggested that Democrats would have to agree to this move or run the risk of looking like they oppose defense programs. Despite that pressure, nearly all Democrats opposed a procedural vote to close debate and Shelby’s effort failed.
Now, the Senate appears stuck at least in terms of the Labor HHS Education Appropriations bill. With a continuing resolution that prevents a federal government shutdown by extending government operating funding until around Thanksgiving, there will be a few more months to resolve these issues. But the unwillingness of Republicans to add more money to the Labor HHS Education bill may prove intractable and lead to a full year continuing resolution, where all education programs receive level funding.