By Jenny Smulson, Director of Government Relations, Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities
On Tuesday, October 1, the federal government began Fiscal Year 2020 (FY20). Once again, this fiscal year has started without a resolution on any of the twelve annual appropriations bills and, as of this writing, there does not seem be a clear strategy or consensus for reaching agreement on this outstanding legislative work. While an “incomplete” is the new normal, it continues to present challenges to individuals, institutions of higher education, communities and other organizations that have received funding from the government to support their most fundamental needs.
At the beginning of the summer, we saw some signs of hope for appropriations. In June, under the leadership of Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Chair of the Labor, HHS, Education Appropriations Subcommittee, and Representative Nita Lowey (D-NY), Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the FY20 Labor, HHS, Education Appropriations bill, as well as nine of the other twelve appropriations proposals. As it was adopted before Congress had agreed to a final agreement on budget or allocations for the upcoming fiscal year, the Labor, HHS, Education Appropriations bill was somewhat aspirational. Without any imposed budget limitations, the House approved an $11.8 billion increase for the subcommittee overall, and a $5 billion increase specifically for education (providing a total of $76 billion for the U.S. Department of Education).
Soon after it passed the House, Congress adopted H.R. 3877, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019 (P.L.116-37), and set specific funding levels. This bill raised the caps on defense and non-defense discretionary (NDD) funding for FY20 and FY21, and suspended the debt ceiling through July 2021. These bipartisan budget efforts are required to circumvent the Budget Control Act of 2011, a law that set strict limits on defense and NDD spending with the goal of reducing the federal budget deficit.
H.R. 3877 allows for increased overall spending by $321 billion over two years (both defense and NDD). While this law increases the pot of money available for all NDD funding by $27 billion above the last fiscal year, it still did not provide enough to accommodate the education funding increases provided in the House-passed bill; Congress had other priorities, including NIH and those outside of this subcommittee’s jurisdiction.
With the overall spending levels set for FY20, the Senate Appropriations Chair, Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), has discretion to set specific allocations for each subcommittee. The Senate Labor, HHS, Education Appropriations bill was scheduled to be marked up in early September but was scuttled over policy-related conflicts and expected funding constraints. To the dismay of the education community, Subcommittee Chairman, Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO), released a report to accompany the Labor, HHS, Education bill, which reduced education spending by approximately $700 million from FY19. To stay within the imposed funding levels, the bill decreases education funding by reducing the Pell grant surplus (in FY19 and FY20); cutting the Temporary Expanded Public Service Loan Forgiveness program; and reducing funding for the Full-Service Community Schools program (a K-12 education program). Remaining education programs are frozen at the FY19 funding levels.
Certainly, the education community is concerned that federal education programs did not receive a proportional share of the $27 billion NDD increase in funding provided in H.R. 3877. AJCU is working in partnership with the Committee for Education Funding (CEF) to ask Congress to give education its proportional share of the NDD increase, and to grow our federal investment in education.
In addition to funding programs, appropriations bills often include language that sets expectations or requirements for federal agencies, including the Department of Education. The House bill includes language directing the Department to issue guidance on the Perkins Loan Program to institutions of higher education (IHE) on loan cancellation and reimbursement by January 2020. The Senate report also “strongly encourages” the Department to issue guidance within 60 days of enactment to IHEs, related to the winding down of the Perkins loan program.
Where does this leave us? With an increasingly dysfunctional federal government, it is anyone’s guess as to how this all ends, and there is constant speculation as to how FY20 will wrap up. Congressional leaders continue to meet to try and hammer out funding differences, and organizations like AJCU will continue to be engaged in advocating for increases to student financial aid and federal higher education programs. There is talk of an omnibus appropriations strategy that will combine all outstanding subcommittee bills and include increases for many programs. Alternatively, there are still whispers of a yearlong continuing resolution that would not likely allow for increases in the federal education program or within other subcommittees.
AJCU continues working to see that education programs receive adequate funding increases, and to ensure that the government stays open to help those who count on its programs and services. Please visit the AJCU Policy Corner on the AJCU website (ajcunet.edu/policy-corner) for policy news, letters and other advocacy materials.