Federal Relations

By Cynthia A. Littlefield, Vice President for Federal Relations, AJCU

Can Congress finish appropriations this year?
The Senate has moved forward to mark up two bills: Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, and Energy and Commerce. Both are scheduled for consideration on the Senate Floor this week. The Senate is moving forward to finish two appropriations bills per week, if possible, in light of the Budget Committee's accepting the previous 302(b) subcommittee allocations from last year’s budget agreement. The goal is to finish all twelve appropriations bills before the July 15th Senate recess. The Senate Labor, H&HS and Education Committee received a $161.9 billion allocation for FY17, a cut from FY16 funding.

The House, on the other hand, remains in a conundrum because the conservative House budget bill still lacks enough votes to take it to the Floor. The House is waiting to consider appropriations bills because of a budget rule that allows such consideration only after May 15th, when there is no budget agreement in place. But a few House appropriations subcommittees are still moving forward by marking up such bills as Military Construction. 

The Labor, H&HS and Education bill is usually considered near the end of the process because of potential riders and more controversial amendments. Thus far, the plan is for the Senate to mark up the Labor, H&HS and Education bill in June. AJCU will continue to work on saving and increasing Federal student aid for all students across the country. Most likely, there will be a Continuing Resolution (CR) in September as Congress will have to adjourn in the fall for the presidential election later this year.

Can Pell grant surplus funding be saved?
The Pell grant program is estimated to have a surplus of $7.8 billion through FY17 appropriations. This is a substantial amount of funding that is difficult to protect. Ideally, the surplus funding for Pell grants should be saved until a few years from now when demographic changes are expected to bring about more Pell-eligible students.

In 2006, the Pell grant scoring rule was established to protect the Pell grant maximum award from being shortchanged. For example, in order to increase the Pell grant maximum award or keep the same level, the cost of that program must be provided in real appropriations dollars, or the Pell grant maximum amount will be cut. This rule was established after appropriators used additional Pell dollars or shortchanged Pell grant funding to meet demands for other programs.

We fear that the Labor, H&HS and Education appropriators may very well cut out some funding from the Pell grant surplus to accommodate more NIH funding, for example. The higher education community sent a letter to Appropriations Chairs and Ranking Members on the Appropriations Committees in the House and Senate, concerning opposition to using the Pell surplus funding for other programs. Nineteen higher education associations, including AJCU, signed this letter initiated by the American Council on Education (ACE). AJCU will continue to work on saving this precious funding for needy students in the future.

HEA mini-reauthorization this summer
According to Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee (HELP) staff, there is an ongoing effort to produce a smaller bipartisan Higher Education Act (HEA) bill before the July 15th recess. The focus of this bill is on two issues: regulatory reform and FAFSA form simplification. Approximately thirty regulations, listed in the 2015 ACE document on regulatory reform, “Recalibrating Regulation of Colleges and Universities,” will be proposed for regulatory eliminations. Senate HELP Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) has been particularly interested in minimizing the FAFSA financial aid form in order to help more students apply for Federal student aid. Senate aides have indicated that more than two questions on the FAFSA form will be added beyond the proposed post card-size form. AJCU wants to make sure that there will be sufficient questions for financial aid administrators to award need-based institutional aid to students, and is closely monitoring this issue.