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Politics Control Legislation Outlook

With Congress having other priorities these days, the HEA reauthorization and the Pell Grant increase could fail.
University Business, Aug 2006

The heat of politics, combined with the humid heat of a Washington, D.C., summer, is putting a damper on the progress of legislation in Congress that is important to the higher education community.

Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act is the most significant measure remaining, and chances appear to be 50-50 at best that it will happen before the 109th Congress fades into history this fall, says Terry Hartle, senior vice president for Government and Public Affairs at the American Council on Education (ACE).

Higher ed advocates in the capital also have an interest in a bill approved by a House subcommittee for a modest $100 increase in Pell Grants, but politics also might get in the way of its passage this year.

While these measures are important to the higher ed community, they pale in comparison to issues like the war in Iraq and immigration that are dominating the political agenda in the nation's capital. With midterm elections coming up in November, incumbents in both parties are wary of bringing up anything for a vote that might give an edge to their political foes in the bitterly divisive Congress.

House Republicans aren't asking Washington's higher ed organizations to get behind Senate approval of reauthorization.

HEA, which was passed by the House in March, is stuck in the Senate-and "the closer we get to the elections, the more political considerations start to enter into the calculation of what comes to the Senate floor, and when," Hartle points out.

Actually, it doesn't matter much whether the Senate acts on the bill or not. The guts of reauthorization-which included $12.7 billion in student loan cuts-were part of the Deficit Reduction Act that Congress enacted early in the year. No essential HEA components remain. "The programs work and there is nothing that absolutely, positively has to be fixed," says Hartle. If Congress fails to act, it probably will simply extend the current higher ed law into next year and leave it to the next Congress to consider, Hartle says.

There are two mindsets on the issue among higher ed lobbyists. One is that the current law probably is better for colleges and universities than whatever is likely to emerge from any reauthorization bill this year. These lobbyists point out that both the House bill that has passed and the pending Senate version contain extensive new regulatory provisions that would impose additional reporting requirements on colleges and universities.

On the other hand, if the new Congress to be elected in November turns out to be as partisan as the current one, "we could have a new set of problems next year," as one lobbyist puts it.

Significantly, House Republicans are not asking higher ed organizations in Washington to get behind Senate approval of reauthorization. Usually, if one chamber has passed a bill and wants the other to act on it, organizations with an interest in the legislation will be encouraged to mobilize their members to pressure the other chamber to act. That has not happened with HEA and, says Hartle, "Congress is running out of time."

Also likely to be lost this year is a $100 increase approved by a House appropriations subcommittee in the maximum Pell Grant award for the 2007 fiscal year-from $4,050 to $4,150. It would be the first increase in five years.

"It's a small increase, but any increase is welcome," says Hartle. "Keeping it will be a big priority for us."

Still, the outlook for approval by the full House, then the Senate, and then finally a conference committee of the two bodies seems dim, again for political reasons as well as the calendar. "It's hard for Congress to vote on matters involving funding for education and health right before an election," Hartle explains.

Alan Dessoff, a former reporter for The Washington Post, is a Bethesda, Md based freelance writer.

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