HEA Renewal Faces Roadblocks
By Garry Boulard
Although it has been billed as one of the top legislative tasks of the 108th U.S. Congress, the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act may be postponed until next year due to stalled action in Congress and diversions posed by the upcoming presidential election.
“I think that for right now, the legislation is generally moving in the direction of the trash can,” said Dr. Thomas Wolanin, a senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy. “There has only been a little action on the House side and none at all in the Senate, and all the while the clock is ticking.”
Rep. Cass Ballenger, R-N.C., agreed. “It is just very difficult right now to make any predictions as to what is going to happen. Someone told me yesterday that the Senate has 270 of our bills sitting over there, and I just don’t see how there can be action on everything,” Ballenger said.
First passed in 1965, HEA is the major means by which the federal government provides financial aid to postsecondary students. Set to expire Sept. 30, the measure has been reauthorized by Congress seven times.
So far during this session, the House has passed four of seven bills related to reauthorization. In the Senate, the committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions has held three hearings exploring various aspects of the renewal.
But even though committee chairman Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., has said he would like to see a Senate version of reauthorization come out of his committee by March 22 — in time for National Education Week — its fortunes beyond that vote remain mired in doubt.
“I think there are just more and more people who believe that this simply is not going to happen this year,” said Paul Hassen, assistant director of public affairs at the American Council on Education. “There are a lot of other things going on in Congress besides reauthorization of HEA, which means that it then becomes a question of whether there is enough time to get everything done.”
Also hampering a renewal of the measure is the 2004 presidential race. Instead of its traditional three-week summer hiatus, Congress will adjourn for six weeks beginning in mid-July for the Democratic and Republican national conventions.
“That will bring us into early September and the beginning of the fall campaign,” Hassen said. “And it’s hard to imagine that you will see much action on such a major piece of legislation in the middle of a presidential campaign.”
What also may stall HEA is the closely divided Senate, according to Ballenger.
“I’ve been here for 20 years and I have never seen it as bad as it is right now. It has just become very difficult to get anything passed. Senator Gregg is probably going to be able to get reauthorization out of his committee, but he is going to have a much harder time trying to get a full vote on the Senate floor.”
Despite the obstacles facing reauthorization, some lawmakers are continuing efforts to create an expanded law that would bump spending up over the $14 billion appropriated in 2002.
Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., for example, has called for tripling the amount of student loans forgiven to math, science and special-education teachers who teach in high schools for at least five years. Payne also has offered an amendment to increase loan forgiveness for all teachers who work in what he calls “high-poverty areas.”
Although Payne’s proposals were defeated in the House, he remains hopeful that they may still be at least partially adopted after HEA clears the Senate and goes to a joint House and Senate conference committee.
“We still view this legislation as being in play,” said Kerry McKenney, Payne’s press secretary, although she noted that House Republicans may be opposed to anything that adds to the cost of reauthorizing HEA.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., meanwhile, has proposed reducing college tuition costs through a series of college-targeted incentives. At the same time, the Bush administration wants to revise the formulas used to distribute funds to campus-based programs such as the Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants, federal work-study programs and Perkins Loans.
“There are many good ideas out there,” Ballenger observed. “But less and less time to do anything about them.”
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