NAICU Washington Update

Congress Poised to Make Major Funding Decisions

July 30, 2021

Congress is following its typical July ramp up activity on funding before it leaves for August recess with both chambers taking actions that will affect how federal money is spent for a number of years ahead.  

This week the House passed a 7-bill “mini-bus” appropriations bill, which includes funding for the Department of Education, while members of the Senate finally seem to have agreed to a bipartisan $1 trillion framework for a physical infrastructure bill. 

As proposed in the President Biden’s budget, the House appropriations bill includes a $400 increase for the Pell Grant maximum that is the first of many steps toward the possible doubling of Pell Grant maximum.  The House bill also includes significant increases for the other student aid programs, including Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, Federal-Work Study, TRIO, and GEAR UP. The bill also increases funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority-Serving Institutions, along with a substantial increase in funding for the National Institutes of Health. 

On the other side of the Capitol, the Senate infrastructure deal includes the addition of $65 billion for broadband expansion, particularly in rural areas. While the details have not been released, funding that is proposed for expansions of broadband for states, towns, and communities could include local colleges. The proposal also includes an expansion of the FCC Low-Income Broadband Benefit program.  This program was created as a response to the pandemic that provides subsidies for internet support to individuals and families receiving means-tested federal assistance, including Pell Grants.

The Senate has taken a vote to start considering the legislation, but has not finished writing the bill. Nailing down the agreement on the physical infrastructure bill unlocks the ability for the Senate to look at additional spending on “social infrastructure” as well, possibly through use of the reconciliation process. Both Republicans and Democrats said they would not support an additional $3.5 trillion for health, education, child care and other needs without first settling on the framework for roads, bridges, trains, transit, and broadband. 

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-VT) said he hopes to have a budget resolution ready for Senate consideration as early as next week, which the House could also pass quickly.  The budget resolution sets spending and revenue targets and can provide reconciliation instructions to authorizing committees to enact specific legislation. The reconciliation process has become a partisan mechanism to pass legislation, regardless of which party is in charge, because special Senate rules limit debate (no filibuster) on reconciliation bills which require only a simple majority for passage. 

Democrats may use the reconciliation process to enact proposals from Biden’s American Families Plan, including a pathway to doubling Pell, HBCU and MSI support, free community college, college completion, and other education programs. 

With a FY 2022 budget resolution set to be determined in early August, the committees would return after the summer break to write legislation to enact the proposals. With no elections this November, Congress has until Christmas to finish its work. 

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