The Changed Landscape

Yes, it was only one house of Congress, and Senate leaders and the White House have already vowed to stop the program cutbacks and political statements in the budget legislation passed by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives from becoming law. But lest anyone doubted that November’s election significantly altered the landscape for federal higher education policy making, Saturday’s passage of the 2011 continuing budget resolution — and the debate over it — provided strong evidence that things have changed.

The most obvious sign of a new world order came in the form of the sharp cuts that the House-passed legislation (H.R. 1) would make in a slew of programs across the federal government — to deeper levels than the House’s Republican leaders initially sought to go, but to which they were pressured by fiscal conservatives, including many in the new crop of freshman lawmakers.

The targets include many programs important to higher education: major ones like Pell Grants first and foremost (to the tune of a roughly 15 percent cut in the maximum grant) and scientific research (hundreds of millions from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation), and smaller ones like the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Because House budget cutters have focused their slashing on non-defense discretionary programs, and education, labor and health programs make up a large portion of that part of the federal budget, such programs would be disproportionately affected by the legislation.

Perhaps the biggest impact of the changeover in Congress, however, can be seen in the extent to which House leaders sought to use their budgetary authority to challenge the policy priorities of the Obama administration and the Democrats who have controlled the legislative branch in recent years. The continuing resolution’s cutbacks on money for Planned Parenthood (an attack on perceived public support for abortion) and funds to carry out the new health care law dominated the national headlines along these lines.

But for higher education, the sea change was most evident in the strikingly lopsided vote for an amendment that would block the U.S. Education Department from using any of its fiscal 2011 funds to carry out its proposed regulation requiring for-profit college and other vocational programs to ensure that their students are prepared for "gainful employment."

The surprise came not in the fact that the Republican-controlled House backed the measure, since many GOP lawmakers have been critical of the Obama Education Department’s regulation of for-profit colleges since 2009, and had promised to use any and all tactics at their disposal to stop it. Republicans have an almost 50-seat majority in the House, so their ability to pass just about any legislation they wish is assured for the next two years.

But the greater threat to the Education Department’s approach may exist in the surprisingly strong support among House Democrats, 58 of whom (out of a total of 193) endorsed the prohibition on the use of 2011 funds to implement or enforce the gainful employment rules, and in the wishy-washy language used even by some Democrats who voted against the amendment.

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