Congressional Committees Begin Markups on Reauthorization Bills
Both houses of Congress announced plans for committee action on reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) in July, although the schedule remains uncertain. This will be the first formal legislative deliberation following three years of public and often contentious reauthorization activities in the House, but very little HEA activity in the Senate.
House Republican leaders announced that their Subcommittee on 21st Century Competitiveness will mark up their bill, HR 609, beginning on July 14. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA) chairs this panel. When and if the subcommittee completes its deliberations, the bill would move to the full committee, chaired by John Boehner (R-OH). Congressmen Boehner and McKeon are the principle sponsors of HR 609. Markup of such a major bill usually takes more than one day, but it can be completed in a single session if all the provisions are debated, all the amendments are offered and a majority of the subcommittee members vote to move the bill forward.
The staff of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee announced in April that they intended to complete committee consideration of their bill on a bipartisan basis before the August recess of the Congress. The Republican leadership has not yet released a comprehensive bill on HEA reauthorization. Unlike the House procedure, the HEA bills do not go to a subcommittee in the Senate, so there is only one markup before this bill goes to the Senate floor. There is little indication of what the HELP Committee Senators will choose to do in HEA reauthorization. Although they face the same legislative and political issues as the House bill, Senators usually write their own HEA bill, and the differences are reconciled after both houses pass alternative versions.
Reauthorization Issues: Old and New
The most significant reauthorization issues have been on the table for more than three years: adding federal restraints on college costs, expanding programs to new providers and new students, increasing loan and grant levels, and the refinancing of student loans. The 2005 federal budget restraints on domestic spending add a new wrinkle in that the committees must find ways to cut several billion dollars per year from the current federal spending levels. As college costs, interest rates and student populations are all rising, this is a very difficult equation to balance.
In accreditation, the House Committee faces the same major issues that were framed in 2003. These are the Republican proposals in HR 609, which were also in the 2003 and 2004 versions of their bill. These four issues are:
- measuring student achievement
- monitoring distance education
- adding federal mandates on transfer of credit
- requiring more public information on accreditation actions.
These issues are all discussed at length in prior editions of the CHEA HEA Update, available on the CHEA Website (www.chea.org) under “Government Relations.”
In addition, two other issues not in HR 609 have received attention. The first of these is procedural fairness or “due process” in accreditation. No bill has been introduced on due process, although legislative changes have been suggested.
The second new issue is only indirectly related to accreditation but addresses a topic central to quality assurance and the independence of institutions: the so-called “Academic Bill of Rights” legislation. On June 23, 28 higher education associations including CHEA released to the public a statement on “Academic Rights and Responsibilities.” This is available on the American Council on Education (ACE) Website. On the same day, Mr. Boehner announced a compromise on the rights issue, which he plans to add to his bill at some point.
Other Reauthorization Proposals
While Congressmen Boehner and McKeon have thus far dominated the reauthorization issues with their bill, HR 609, there are other proposals. House Democrats George Miller (D-CA) and Dale Kildee (D-MI) have another approach in their bill, HR 2960, focused on college affordability. Likewise, Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and others have a bipartisan bill in both houses, known as STAR (Student Aid Reward Act), to expand direct lending over traditional guaranteed loans. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) has introduced S 1261, a bill to deregulate higher education institutions. None of these bills have accreditation provisions. Senator Elizabeth Dole (R-NC) and others introduced S 1068, which repeats a bill from last year, mostly on better information for students. This bill includes a new reporting requirement on transfer of credit, and CHEA has suggested a modification to reduce institutional reporting burdens.
Working with institutions, accreditors and other associations, CHEA has provided to the House and Senate advice and suggested alternatives to many of the accreditation proposals. Work continues on an alternate proposal for public information on accreditation results, and we hope to reach an agreement shortly that can be offered to the House Committee as an improvement over their proposal in HR 609. CHEA will continue to inform you of the developments and work to improve the HEA reauthorization as it proceeds through the Congress.
If you have relationships with members of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, this is an important time to contact them again and reiterate support for well-drawn provisions on accreditation in the reauthorization. For a summary of the issues, see the CHEA Website, September 2004 HEA Status Report.