News: Federal Policy & Advocacy

Congress Has Hills to Climb This Fall in Government Funding, HEA

Monday, September 9, 2019  
Posted by: Carrie Warick, Director of Policy and Advocacy
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Washington can now declare the end of summer because Congress is back in town. Returning from the traditional August recess, Congress has a daunting task in front of it that needs to be completed by the end of the month: Not a single appropriations bill required to fund the federal government has gone to the president for signature.

Meanwhile, the respective House and Senate committees continue their slog through attempts to renew the long overdue Higher Education Act.

NCAN members can expect Congress’ focus in September to be entirely on appropriations. Also expect several higher education-related bills in the House as the new chair’s first year comes to an end. You can stay up-to-date by following the NCAN blog, reading Success Digest, and checking the “Bills to Watch” page in the Action Center on the NCAN website.

2020-21 Pell Grant Max Caught Up in Appropriations Negotiations

Funding for the Department of Education, which includes the office of Federal Student Aid, is part of the Labor-Health and Human Services-Education bill (or Labor-H, in Washington parlance). The House passed this bill in the spring and included a $150 increase to the maximum Pell Grant as well as increases to other areas of NCAN interest including Federal Work-Study, SEOG, TRIO, and GEAR UP. The Pell Grant increase is on par with an inflationary adjustment for the award, bringing the maximum to $6,345 for the 2020-21 award year.

The Senate appropriations committee is just considering its Labor-H bill for the first time today, and it has not released any details about the potential Pell Grant maximum or program level funding. Both chambers will need to agree on funding totals for the Department of Education and then the president must sign-off. NCAN supports a minimum increase equal to an inflationary adjustment of the current $6,195 award.

[Learn about NCAN's proposal to strengthen the Pell Grant.]

Congress has a lot of work to do in a short period of time. Each year, the legislative branch must pass 12 bills that collectively oversee all of the discretionary funding in the federal government. Last year, education funding was part of one of the five bills to pass on time (by Sept. 30, for the Oct. 1 start of the federal fiscal year). It was the first time in two decades that the Labor-H bill was passed on time. However, the federal government shut down for several weeks in January 2019 because of the remaining seven bills that were not passed.

What happens by Oct. 1 of this year is anyone’s guess. House Democrats already plan to vote on a short-term bill to extend current funding levels past Sept. 30 to buy Congress more time, acknowledging the Herculean feat it will take to pass all 12 bills in three weeks.

Higher Education Act Reauthorization Still Long Way Off

Another challenge in front of Congress is reauthorizing the Higher Education Act (HEA). HEA was last reauthorized in 2008, and is supposed to be renewed every five years. However, with a few exceptions, missing the five-year deadline does not affect how the federal programs and oversight are implemented. They just keep working as is until the law is update.

In the Senate, the chair of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) is eager to renew the law before he retires in December 2020. His staff have been meeting with those of Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), ranking member for the committee for several months. The senators each presented their HEA priorites in February and March, respectively. However, they have not been able to find common ground on hot-button issues such as the federal government’s role in addressing how colleges should handle allegations of sexual assault on campus (insider shorthand: Title IX) and whether institutions should be responsible for paying back a portion of their graduates' student debt (Insider shorthand: risk sharing).

In the House, Education and Labor Committee Chair Bobby Scott (D-VA), released a Journey-themed paper this spring with his priorities for HEA reauthorization. He also partnered with Ranking Member Virginia Foxx (R-NC) on five bipartisan hearings this past spring. However, there have been no bipartisan discussions since the conclusion of the hearings. Insiders here in Washington expect Chairman Scott to release an updated version of his Aim Higher Act this fall. During the last Congress, Rep. Foxx introduced the PROSPER Act as her proposal for HEA reauthorization.

It is likely there will be a flurry of legislative activity in the House this fall, but any real chance of an HEA bill that makes it to the president’s desk requires a bipartisan bill to come out of the Senate.