Despite divisions, next Congress might still fund higher education

Mike Wereschagin

As the battle for Florida’s crucial 25 electoral votes crystallizes party lines, concern over a feuding U.S. Congress is growing among Washington D.C. lobbyists.
With no significant majority in either the U.S. House or Senate, it is feared some issues could fall victim to partisan politics.
Higher education is one of those issues.
Two of higher education’s most powerful Congressional allies are stepping down from committee leadership positions in the coming weeks.
Rep. John Porter, R-Ill., is retiring. The chairman of an appropriations subcommittee, he championed spending on biomedical studies.
Also, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Penn., has announced he will step down as chairman of the Senate appropriations panel on education and health spending.
New committee leaders will have to be appointed and the tension between Republicans and Democrats has the potential to slow the process.
The Republican majority in the House, for instance, will likely want to give themselves a one-seat majority on the committees. But that could anger Democrats, who might retaliate by blocking some other Republican measures, said University political science professor Steven Smith.
But while Smith acknowledges Congress will probably become significantly more partisan, higher education funding will not be called into question and will probably continue to grow, he said.
“Higher education is not a partisan issue,” he said. “There are differences between (Texas Gov. George) Bush and (Vice President Al) Gore in their attitudes toward funding higher education, but they’re not as big as their differences on other issues.”
The greatest differences between presidential candidates in regards to higher education are their proposed tax cuts, he said.
Bush advocates tax cuts for all income levels while Gore supports more substantial tax credits to middle-income families.
Gore’s proposed tuition tax credit would nearly cover resident University students, Smith said.
Both Bush and Gore support direct lending, which would enable students to borrow from the federal government instead of getting a guaranteed loan from a bank.
Another boon to higher education comes from the front-runners to replace the committee chairs.
Rep. Thomas Petri, R-Wis., is the likely candidate to replace Porter. Petri is a vocal proponent of direct lending, an initiative originally championed by the Clinton administration.
Senators Judd Gregg, R-N.H., and Larry Craig, R-Idaho, are the leading contenders for Sen. Specter’s committee chair.
Gregg has been an outspoken advocate of education measures, particularly those affecting Dartmouth College in his home state, and Columbia University, his alma mater.
Craig, like Specter, is a supporter of the National Institutes of Health, the largest donator to university research nationwide. He supports doubling the NIH’s annual budget.
The NIH currently contributes about $150 million per year to the University’s research efforts.
“There is an air in Washington of ‘We need to get things done’ when it comes to higher education,” said Peter Jeffries, communications director for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. “We will enter the 107th Congress with that mandate. The speaker is a former high school teacher so he knows the value of a good education. He will work with Congress to put that first.”
— The Chronicle of Higher Education contributed to this report.

Mike Wereschagin welcomes comments at [email protected]