Senate Formally Unveils Spending Measures Ahead of Impending Deadline, With Slight Boost to Maximum Pell

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter

Following the presidential election, the Senate has kicked off the lame duck session by unveiling all 12 of its fiscal year 2021 spending proposals, including the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies (Labor-H) spending bill. The fiscal year is currently operating under a continuing resolution (CR) that funds federal agencies and programs run by the Department of Education (ED) through December 11.

The Senate proposal would provide $73.2 billion in discretionary funding for ED, which the committee says represents an increase of $433 million from the previous fiscal year.

“As negotiations with the House begin in earnest, I look forward to working with Chairwoman Lowey, Vice Chairman Leahy, and Ranking Member Granger to resolve our differences in a bipartisan manner,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said in a statement. “Time after time, we have demonstrated our willingness to work together and get the job done. We have before us the opportunity to deliver for the American people once again.” 

Among other provisions, the measure would also increase the maximum Pell Grant award by $150, from $6,345 to $6,495 for the 2021-22 academic year, and includes a $21 million increase for programs to strengthen historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and other minority-serving institutions (MSIs).

NASFAA has long urged lawmakers to provide an increase in the Pell Grant award, which has seen a significant decline in “purchasing power” over the years, as a part of a congressional reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA). .

“Whatever path forward Congress takes on advancing a sufficient Pell Grant maximum award to support low-income students, Congress should, at the very least, reinstate an automatic inflation adjustment to the maximum award,” wrote NASFAA’s 2019 HEA Reauthorization Refresh Working Group. “Sustained and certain investment is necessary to ensure the Pell Grant regains its purchasing power. Predictable, set increases to the Pell Grant maximum award assist financial aid offices, and students and families, in determining a student’s ability to pursue higher education.”

While Senate Appropriations Ranking Member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said he was disappointed that the committee will forgo the markup process, thus eliminating the opportunity for members to propose amendments to the text that would receive a committee vote.

“Our goal is to work with the House to conference all 12 appropriations bills and avert a government shutdown. We only have four weeks to do it,” Leahy said. “In order to accomplish our work, we need Senate bills to work from. The 12 bills being released by the Chairman on Tuesday will help us move forward in this process.” 

Under the near party-line House-passed proposal, which the chamber advanced back in July, appropriators would provide a total of $73.5 billion in discretionary funds for ED, an increase of $716 million from fiscal year 2020 and $6.9 billion from President Donald Trump’s budget request.

While the topline numbers for the ED portion of the House and Senate proposals are not that far off, a myriad of policy riders could easily snag the spending process.

“This country is headed for a deadly winter and it is long past time for us to provide the resources the country needs to get this virus under control and our economy back open,” Leahy said. “These bills do not provide any such relief. It is imperative that we do what is necessary to stop this pandemic from spreading.”

Congress had to rely on a number of continuing resolutions last year to complete its appropriations work, but managed to wrap up all 12 spending bills by the end of December. In staving off a government shutdown, fiscal year 2020 spending included a $150 increase to the maximum Pell Grant award, and addressed ongoing issues with federal loan servicers and foreign gift reporting requirements.

However this time around, amid a presidential transition process, congressional leaders will face a number of challenges in implementing reconciled proposals before the December deadline due to the narrowed legislative calendar, as well as jockeying over Georgia’s Senate races, which could dramatically change the dynamics of the Senate for the new Congress.

For more information on the federal budget process, see NASFAA’s Federal Budget and Appropriations page and NASFAA’s budget FAQs


Publication Date: 11/12/2020

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