By Jenny Smulson, Vice President of Government Relations, AJCU
“It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” says a popular Christmas song. For many, it is! In their personal lives, people are happily busy—celebrating holidays with lights and candles, decorating homes, trimming trees, searching for meaningful gifts…much of it in anticipation of the upcoming holiday or on the heels of one. Our Jesuit colleges and universities are marking Advent with choral concerts and festivities in anticipation of the joyful Christmas holiday season.
There is great anticipation on Capitol Hill too, but of a different kind—the hold-your-breath, maybe-not-the-most-wonderful-time-of-the-year kind for those working in the Capitol. If you follow Congress, then you know that members of the House and Senate are also busy. Their work is more stressful and less joy-filled. In a high-stakes, high-pressure environment, they are trying to advance must-pass legislation before the New Year.
Fiscal Year 2022 funding: The federal fiscal year expired on September 30th. As in years past, the House and Senate did not complete action on the fiscal year 2022 (FY’22) legislation and instead passed a “continuing resolution” (CR), thus keeping the government open and funded at the current fiscal year funding levels through December 3rd.
At the end of last week, Democrats and Republicans, House and Senate had yet to come to the table to resolve the FY’22 funding differences. (The House Democrats have passed their appropriations bills, and the Senate Democrats have released draft legislation. Republicans in the House and Senate have not put forward any counterproposals to date). To avoid a government shutdown, Congress passed a second CR extending government funding through February 18th. Passing the CRs keeps the government functioning, but the CRs extend the funding levels proposed by the Trump administration.
What’s included in the FY’22 education funding bill? That legislation includes a $400 increase in the maximum Pell Grant along with other key investments in federal education programs. Significantly, the 13 appropriations bills are must-pass legislation. These bills keep our federal government operating. If the appropriations bills are not passed by February 18th, then Congress must pass another CR, or the government will shut down.
Build Back Better (BBB): What else is keeping Congress busy? Democrats in the House and Senate continue to negotiate a FY’22 budget reconciliation bill. Build Back Better (BBB) is a human infrastructure investment proposal that provides resources for childcare, universal pre-K, Pell Grants (a proposed $550 increase to the Pell maximum) and other policy areas intended to support people/families in their effort to get back on track in our near post-pandemic world.
The House Democrats passed a $1.7 trillion proposal and sent that package to the Senate. In the Senate, Democrats continue to debate specific provisions and overall funding levels. Because no Republicans support BBB, the Democrats need to assure that every single member of their party is on board, in full support of the bill…or it cannot pass.
Is budget reconciliation a must-pass bill? Not exactly. The government will stay open whether or not BBB passes, but the Democrats have a lot at stake in this bill—and it’s a must-pass for them in terms of advancing President Biden’s agenda and fulfilling his vision for our national recovery.
Both these bills include significant plus-ups for valuable programs that, if passed and signed into law, would make post-secondary study more accessible and affordable and would ensure greater completion. The increases to Pell, both of which we hope to see enacted this year, would be a down payment on a Biden administration campaign “promise” and a higher education community goal of doubling the maximum federal Pell Grant from $6,495 to $13,000.
Debt ceiling: You have likely heard the term “debt ceiling” in the news lately. According to a White House white paper, “the debt limit is a ceiling imposed by Congress on the amount of debt that the U.S. Federal government can have outstanding. Once the debt limit is hit, the Federal government cannot increase the amount of outstanding debt; therefore, it can only draw from any cash on hand and spend its incoming revenues. Because the United States has never defaulted on its obligations, the scope of the negative repercussions of not satisfying all Federal obligations due to the debt limit are unknown; it is expected to be widespread and catastrophic for the U.S. (and global) economy.”
What are the real-life impacts of breaching the debt ceiling? Financial crisis, credit downgrade, interest penalties, recession, unemployment and non-payment of safety net programs like Social Security. According to the Congressional Research Service, since World War II, Congress has enacted 98 debt limit modifications. These have mostly been bipartisan votes. With the debt ceiling projected to be reached around mid-December, this is another critical must-pass piece of legislation that Congress must resolve as soon as possible.
The Senate is currently debating the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2022. The NDAA provides the framework for spending at the Department of Defense. While not an education bill, it includes some provisions that will have an impact on colleges and universities. The NDAA is first in line to advance (it is pending Senate business), and the other legislation mentioned will follow the NDAA. While it does not have to be passed by the end of the year, it traditionally has been.
Passing one bill can be a challenge, especially in a charged, political environment. Passing all these bills by the deadlines that are internally or externally imposed—well, that might require a miracle. The Jesuit Global website describes Advent as a season of waiting with hopeful expectation. It serves as a good description of our longing for Congress to come together and advance legislation that will direct resources to students with demonstrated economic need, putting us on a path towards equity and opportunity.