Senate Committee Begins HEA
Under the leadership of a new chair, the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) has begun its public work on renewing the Higher Education Act (HEA). Chair Mike Enzi (R-WY) and senior Democrat Ted Kennedy (D-MA) have directed their staff members to prepare a bipartisan bill for committee consideration, with work to be completed by this June.
Three months after the new Congress convened, approximately 100 national higher education organizations were invited on two days notice to meet on April 15 with staff members representing the 20 Senators on the Committee. The staff directions from the Senators emphasized bipartisan cooperation in the HELP Committee and a fresh start on the HEA reauthorization. This would differ sharply from the HEA work in the House.
At the April 15 discussion, the HELP staff laid out their operational plans for reauthorization and asked for views on issues from the group. Staff members were firm in their plans to complete work at the committee level by the end of June. Staff made several other key procedural points. Written views of constituents should be submitted electronically and will be distributed to the entire staff. Once their bipartisan bill text is released, staff want comments specific to the legislative text by page and line number. They will start with the existing law, not from any prior bill in the Senate or the House. There was no indication when the bill would be released.
The higher education groups, including CHEA, responded that they want to work with the Senators and their staff members. Over 30 speakers summarized the views on HEA of their respective organizations. The full set of expressed views covered every major conflict within the higher education community on the HEA. Accreditation topics were mentioned several times, but not in a contentious way.
Setting a Speed Record
The timing as explained by the staff is certainly feasible, because the Senators control the entire process within the Committee. However, the pace and process would be unprecedented. Many veteran observers consider the proposed timing unlikely.
There are four major constraints on rapid Senate action. First, HEA issues are inherently difficult, as shown by the last two years of wrangling in the House. Second, HEA deliberations take time; the Act is a large bill with major constituent interests and many competing ideas for changes in the law. Third, federal budget limits might preclude maintaining the current funding levels for student aid programs, where the federal costs grow each year with increased participation under the current law. And fourth, the HELP Committee also has many other bills to address, both in education and the other areas of its broad jurisdiction.
Past practice also suggests that the June timeline might not be met. A more typical legislative pace would be a year or more between bill introduction and completion of committee considerations, known formally as "reporting the bill" to the full Senate. No comprehensive Senate bill has been made public or introduced. In the seven major reauthorizations since the original HEA of 1965, the Senate Committee has never moved its bill before the House was well along with its version.
Notwithstanding these constraining elements and past practices, the committee can move if a majority of members want to do so. With a bipartisan approach, a majority should be easy to assemble. The question is: Can they agree on the whole HEA in a short time within the constraints facing the committee?
CHEA plans to remain your best source of developments in the HEA relating to accreditation and voluntary quality assurance. A CHEA letter was hand delivered to the staff at the April 15 meeting summing our existing positions on the accreditation-related issues in the HEA. CHEA will continue to cooperate with institutions, accreditors and other higher education associations and work with the Senate as their specific proposals emerge. CHEA representatives have already met with Senate staff members and will continue to do so.