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Congress Fails to Enact Spending Bill

Congress Fails to Enact Spending Bill
For K-12 and Higher Education

Inaction avoided battle over pork-barrel spending.
By Charles Dervarics

The 109th Congress has adjourned without enacting a spending bill for K-12 and higher education — a situation that’s part of a high-stakes political battle that is drawing concern from advocates.

With control of the House and Senate passing over to the Democrats in January, Republican leaders showed little desire to wade into the unfinished business of a budget for the fiscal year that began
Oct. 1. The GOP instead relied on short-term continuing resolutions to keep the U.S. Department of Education and other domestic agencies in operation through mid-February.

Democratic leaders say they simply may extend these resolutions through the rest of the fiscal year.

Going back to re-fight 2006’s budget battles “ties the Democrats up in a knot just as they come back to the majority,” says Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. “What they are leaving for Democrats is a minefield.”

The lack of a budget may give Democrats little time to celebrate their mid-term election victory. They already have pledged to raise the minimum wage and cut interest rates on student loans during their first month in power.

Also at issue is spending for thousands of domestic programs, ranging from education to health and transportation. The easiest solution is to maintain last year’s funding levels through September 2007, though such a mechanical option leaves little room for effective policymaking, Nassirian says.

“We are disappointed that this Congress has not prioritized higher education,” says Jennifer Pae, president of the United States Student Association. If lawmakers opt for a quick omnibus bill, “That gives us little time to get organized,” she says.

Aside from Pell Grants, other programs still without long-term funding for 2007 include college work/study, aid to Black colleges and Hispanic-serving institutions and TRIO programs such as Talent Search and Upward Bound. Those two programs, along with GEAR UP, another college access and preparation initiative, were slated for termination by the White House for the current fiscal year. The final 2007 budget presumably would have to contain enough funding to protect those programs.

But devoting a large amount of time to 2006’s unfinished business has other risks for Democrats. Aside from setting its own priorities, the new Congress by early February must start reviewing President Bush’s budget ideas for 2008.

“In effect, the new Congress would have to manage two budgets simultaneously,” Pae says.

With the 2007 budget still unresolved, Democrats on Capitol Hill also face sky-high expectations after 12 years of Republican rule. Some education groups expect a sympathetic ear to proposals that have gone unheeded in recent years.

For example, while USSA supports a cut in student loan interest rates, the organization has many more priorities on student aid. Two items high on the organization’s agenda are a Pell Grant increase and a cut in loan origination fees.

“The most basic, need-based grant has been stagnant for the last five years,” says Pae. “More low-income students, particularly students of color, are being shut out of higher education.”

The student group supports Democrat’s efforts to cut interest rates. “But this is not fully addressing the problems that students face,” she says. “Students of color and first-generation students are not getting enough access to need-based grant assistance.”

Another issue for Congress is whether tax credits such as the HOPE Scholarship are effective in meeting higher education challenges. While the GOP did not act on a 2007 education budget bill in December, it did convene a hearing on whether education tax breaks make it easier for colleges to keep raising tuition.

Dr. James Duderstadt, president emeritus of the University of Michigan and a member of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, agrees that the current system of tax incentives and financial aid has flaws. “What our tax and student aid policy does not do as well as it should is to assure that help is directed at students with the greatest financial need,” he said at the hearing.

Another piece of unfinished business for the new Congress is reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. The House and Senate are late in renewing key provisions of the law that were last authorized
in 1998.

The job facing the new Congress is “gargantuan,” says Nassirian. Add a bleak budget landscape and a war in Iraq, and lawmakers may find less time and money to devote to education policy. “It will be a tough balancing act to deliver,” he says.

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