Congressional Super Committee’s Inaction Means Potentially Devastating Cuts

With the collapse of a congressional “super committee” charged with cutting $1.2 trillion in federal spending, most education programs face the prospect of moderate to deep cuts beginning in January 2013 — including programs for minority-serving colleges and universities.

“I think this super committee was a super failure,” said Antonio Flores, president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, on Tuesday, shortly after the 12-member panel finished its work without an agreement. Congress created the committee to identify additional deficit reductions that lawmakers were unable to agree upon last summer during the debate on the nation’s debt ceiling.

Six Republicans and six Democrats had met since early fall to consider options with a pre-Thanksgiving deadline. Under legislation passed earlier this year, the committee’s failure triggers across-the-board cuts after the November 2012 elections.

“Uncertainty is the name of the game now. It’s like playing Russian roulette with the economy,” Flores told Diverse.

The cuts, known as a “sequester,” would amount to about 10 percent of federal spending on historically Black colleges and minority-serving institutions in 2013, said Edith Bartley, government affairs director for the United Negro College Fund.

With continued inaction, similar cuts could take effect annually for a decade, she said.

“The pie will definitely be shrinking,” Bartley told Diverse. “The only way it can be stopped is if Congress reconvenes another group with a new deadline. It’s an extremely difficult situation.”

The reductions would be particularly devastating given the struggling economy and calls by the White House to increase rates of college success. “These kinds of across-the-board cuts for HBCUs and MSIs make it more difficult to contribute to our nation if we’re going to double college graduation rates,” she said.

Flores said he had hoped that lawmakers would agree to a broad agreement that would address entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare along with new revenue through tax increases or closing tax loopholes.

“We are disappointed by the whole process and the result,” he said.

At least one fiscal expert agreed that the committee’s failure leaves education programs vulnerable for the foreseeable future. “If the super committee had succeeded, it would have been better for education,” said Jason Delisle, director of the Federal Education Budget Project at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C.

The reason, he said, is that the panel had the ability to consider all federal spending, including entitlements. The across-the-board cuts, however, present “a complicated formula riddled with exemptions,” he added.

On the positive side, Pell Grants would be exempt from across-the-board cuts because the legislation largely shields low-income programs from reductions. However, he said it also does little to control mounting federal spending on entitlements.

“It sets very strict caps on a part of the budget [domestic discretionary spending] that hasn’t been growing. But there are no caps on entitlements — the part of the budget that’s expanding,” Delisle said.

Annual across-the-board cutbacks also can undermine a federal budget and appropriations process that already falls behind schedule, creating a scenario in which Congress may approve an annual spending bill one month only to have moderate cuts take effect a few weeks later.

An across-the-board cut “definitely spreads the pain,” he told Diverse, “but it’s anathema to good budgeting.”

Congress and President Obama do have another year to pass legislation that blocks the 2013 cuts, and both Bartley and Flores said MSIs would work to convince lawmakers of the need for a responsible compromise. But education organizations aren’t the only ones that need to focus on the issue. “Parents, students, family members and communities need to be vocal,” Bartley said. “You can’t be silent on this.”