Congressional Panels Vote to Hold Down Spending on Student Aid and NIH

The Chronicle of Higher Education

Appropriations panels in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives approved no increases on Wednesday for most student-aid programs and only a modest rise for the National Institutes of Health, ending years of large increases for biomedical research.

The small increases in both bills reflected efforts by Republican lawmakers, who control both houses of Congress, to rein in growth in the federal deficit. The deficit is projected to balloon to $246-billion this year. Democratic legislators said the fiscal discipline was an unwelcome product of tax cuts promoted by President Bush, which they said had unreasonably squeezed a range of important domestic priorities, including Pell Grants.

The maximum Pell Grant would remain at the current year's level of $4,050 in both spending plans approved on Wednesday, first by a Senate appropriations subcommittee and then by the full Appropriations Committee in the House. The Senate bill is scheduled to go before the full appropriations panel in that chamber today. President Bush had recommended decreasing the maximum Pell award to $4,000 for the 2004 fiscal year, which begins on October 1.

Other federal-aid programs for students would get little or no increase over this year's levels. "It's a dark day," said Cynthia A. Littlefield, director of federal relations at the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. She called the proposed increases for student aid the bleakest since 1995, when Republicans assumed control of both houses of Congress and moved to curtail federal spending. "We will continue working on this in the hope that in the final conference report [reconciling the two bills], we will see some increases," she said.

The Senate and House bills both provided small increases of about 2 percent for each of two programs that encourage students from low-income families to prepare for college.

Gear Up, which provides services to needy middle-school and high-school students, would get $300-million under both the Senate and House spending plans. The TRIO program, which offers outreach and support to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, would get $840-million under the Senate plan and $835-million in the House bill.

The Senate and House bills would both hold spending at this year's level for several other student-aid programs. They include the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant Program, which supplements Pell Grants for needy students; the Federal Work-Study Program; the Perkins Loan Program, which provides low-interest loans to needy students; and the Leveraging Educational Assistance Partnership Program, which President Bush has recommended eliminating altogether.

Meanwhile, the Senate bill would provide an increase of 3.7 percent for the National Institutes of Health, for a total program budget of $27.983-billion in 2004. The House bill proposes a rise of 2.5 percent, to $27.664-billion, which matched the president's request.

Lawmakers completed this year a five-year effort to double spending for the NIH, which is the largest single source of funds for university research. But research advocates have argued that an increase of about 10 percent in 2004 was necessary to maintain the momentum of scientific discovery started by the doubling. Anything less would prove disruptive because of the way the agency's grants are structured, they said.

Nevertheless, the Senate's proposed budget for the NIH was significant because it was the largest single increase in the entire bill, which also provides funds for the Department of Education and a variety of social-service programs. Spending not required by law would rise 2.2 percent over all in the Senate bill and 4.2 percent in the House version.

Before the House Appropriations Committee voted on Wednesday, U.S. Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, who is the panel's senior Democrat, proposed two amendments related to college programs, both of which were defeated.

The first would have increased the maximum Pell Grant by $150, to $4,200. That, Mr. Obey said, would help people pay for rising tuition costs during the recession. The amendment also would have given the NIH a spending increase of 5.5 percent in 2004. The House bill is expected to pay for only 21 more research grants not related to bioterrorism in 2004 compared with this year's level.

The second amendment would have blocked a plan, proposed by the Bush administration and contained in the bill, to decrease the amount of state and local taxes that students and parents can deduct when determining eligibility for federal financial aid. The cuts would range from 1 percentage point to 4 percentage points in every state except Connecticut.

The bill would decrease tax deductions for aid eligibility by between 14.3 percent and 80 percent in all affected states. Three states -- South Dakota, Tennessee, and Wyoming -- would lose the deductions altogether. The decrease in tax deductions would make it more difficult for people to afford college, Mr. Obey said.

The full Senate could vote on its bill earlier than usual, by mid-July. That timing is part of a strategy by Republican leaders in Congress to control federal spending in 2004. Congress considers 13 separate appropriations bills each year that together finance the government. The bill that finances education and social services is usually the largest nondefense bill and one of the most politically sensitive. As a result, lawmakers often vote on it last.

In recent years, however, spending increases in all of the other appropriations bills have exceeded initial estimates, and lawmakers have found it all but impossible to make up the difference in the bill that finances education and social services. Thus, overall federal spending has risen faster than some Republicans in Congress would prefer.

Senate leaders have reserved an additional $2.2-billion to add to the 13 appropriations bills before they are completed, said Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that wrote the education and social-services bill. However. individual senators may find it hard to have an impact on how that money is distributed: Congress passed a resolution earlier this year that will require 60 senators, instead of the usual 51, to approve amendments by individual senators during debate on spending bills for the 2004 fiscal year. Some of the money may be distributed when negotiators from the House and Senate meet to resolve differences between the two versions of the bills.

Mr. Specter, who has been one of the NIH's primary champions in Congress, did not try to hide his disappointment with the current version of the Senate bill. The limitations on available funds made it "extremely difficult to make allocations in any way that is remotely satisfactory," he said.

Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, the senior Democrat on the subcommittee, added that increasing spending for Pell Grants is "just vital for low-income students to have access to higher education."