Legislative Update: Oct 19, 2019

FY 2020 Appropriations
This week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R–KY) initiated a plan for debating FY 2020 spending bills on the Senate floor. The Senate has yet to pass a single measure to fund federal agencies for the fiscal year that began on October 1. The plan is still in process, but McConnell has filed two “shells” that will include multiple spending bills. He and Senate Appropriations Committee leaders are debating which bills might be included in those shells. McConnell said on the Senate floor of his plans:

We need to get moving.  The country is watching. It's time to make progress. . . . In order to meet Democrats halfway, the first House shell we will vote on will be a package of the domestic funding bills. If we can get bipartisan support to take up that domestic funding bill, we will stay on it until we complete it … Afterward, we would turn to the second package, including the defense funding that our armed forces and commanders need, especially in this dangerous time and considering current events, plus resources for other priorities such as the opioid epidemic.

Regardless of which bills are debated by the Senate, the House and Senate will still need to negotiate the very different proposals. Advocates have been weighing in with appropriators. Higher education interests would like to see a final FY 2020 Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education appropriations package that has funding closer to the House-passed numbers, but it is more likely to end up closer to Senate-proposed levels for the year. The Commerce, Justice, and Science bill is in a similar situation. As the Senate is just beginning the process started, it is doubtful that all bills will be negotiated and passed by November 21, when the current continuing resolution expires. That sets the stage for the development of another stopgap measure at a time when partisanship is increasing, and the relationship between the White House and Congress continues to fray.

Higher Education
This week, House Education and Labor Committee chair Bobby Scott (D–VA) unveiled the College Affordability Act (HR 4674). The partisan plan would “immediately lower the cost of college for students and families at a fraction of the cost of the GOP tax cut,” according to a committee-prepared fact sheet. The 1,300-page bill deals with many thorny issues related to federal student loan and grant programs, and its plans to revamp investments in colleges of education are generally welcomed.

The legislation is significantly more generous than current programs for students and borrowers, increasing funding levels for Pell Grants, TRIO, and GEAR UP, and making loans more affordable. It proposes reviving the Perkins Loan Program—which expired in 2017—restructuring the Federal Work-Study and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant programs, and re-establishing the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program on more stable footing. It would allow the secretary of education to select institutions and others to carry out competency-based education demonstration programs. It would also enact a federal-state partnership that would establish free education at community colleges—a high-profile issue for most Democrats in the presidential primary race.

The higher education community’s reaction to the bill has been mixed. The Council for Opportunity in Education—TRIO program advocates--has applauded some changes to TRIO programs but noted that additional reporting requirements will be challenging. The Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities congratulates the bill’s authors on the effort and regards some provisions favorably but notes, “Unfortunately, the bill is not all good news.” The American Association of Community Colleges is particularly complimentary of the bill’s inclusion of America’s College Promise. Many groups have said nothing publicly. Regarding provisions important to undergraduate research, the 1,300-page bill does include provisions that would invest in early-career faculty research at minority-serving institutions (MSIs) and provide support to postbaccalaureate students to conduct research, as well as other changes that are still being analyzed.

The committee is expected to mark up the bill at the end of the month, and Scott has said he would like to see it on the House floor by year’s end. Whether that comes to pass remains to be seen, however, since much like the 115th Congress’s Republican-proposed PROSPER Act, which never saw a floor vote since there were some Republicans who could not support the plan of then-chair Virginia Foxx (R–NC) for revising higher education policy, there are elements to the bill that are unsupported by some Democrats. If the bill is unlikely to pass, its prospects for reaching the floor are dim.

In the Senate, Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee chair Lamar Alexander (R–TN) reacted to the imminent expiration of programs that invest in MSIs by cobbling together a “mini-reauthorization” bill. He and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D–WA) have been trying to work together on a bipartisan, comprehensive reauthorization plan all year, but differences on such issues as Title IX enforcements, accreditation, and participation of for-profit institutions in federal student aid programs have slowed these talks. The Alexander package would streamline the FAFSA, simplify financial aid award letters, expand Pell Grant eligibility for students in prisons, allow Pell to be used for short-term programs, and propose other changes. It would also renew the $255 million in annual funding for MSIs. The MSI issue has broad bipartisan support, and Alexander is hoping to leverage that support to pass the larger package. Murray is opposed to this approach, saying she would like to pass a measure to address the MSI funding while work on a comprehensive bill continues. It seems unlikely that Alexander will be successful, but his skill as a legislator may turn the tide. Regardless, pushing the debate of this complicated matter to an election year when partisanship will undoubtedly be at an all-time high does not bode well for enactment.

Scientific Integrity
The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee recently passed—by a vote of 25 to 6—a bill to strengthen the scientific integrity across US government agencies. The bipartisan bill, HR 1709, would require two dozen federal research agencies to develop and follow clear principles designed to protect scientists and their research from political influence. Several agencies have adopted such policies following a 2010 executive order from then-President Barack Obama, but this bill, if enacted, would transform that presidential directive into a law that would also require training on the topic and direct agencies on how to monitor any alleged violations. Although there have been suggestions that the bill is a result of what some consider to be the Trump administration’s attack on science, Democrats avoided such a suggestion at the October 17 markup of the measure. Ultimately, a key compromise that addressed how agency scientists should interact with the media was the change that won over Republicans. The original bill would have allowed government scientists the right to talk to the media without prior clearance from agency officials. The panel’s top Republican, Rep. Frank Lucas (R–OK), offered an amendment to remove that language. That amendment was successful and received the support of the other Republicans on the panel. The next step is a vote on the floor of the House. In the Senate, Sen. Brian Schatz (D–HI) has introduced similar legislation, and the bipartisan nature of the House bill improves the bill’s prospects in the Senate.


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