Washington Watch: Senate passes key appropriations bill

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The Senate last week did something it hasn’t done in a while: pass a funding bill for education and job training programs before the new fiscal year started. Time will tell whether the bill will go to the president’s desk before the start of fiscal year (FY) 2019 on October 1. 

On August 23, the U.S. Senate passed the FY 2019 Labor, Health and Human Services and Education (LHHS) appropriations bill, which funds many community college priority programs. The bill was combined with the Department of Defense appropriations legislation into a massive, $857 billion “minibus” appropriations bill (H.R. 6157). The bill must now be reconciled with its House counterpart, which should be considered on the floor sometime after Labor Day.

While several minor changes were made to the Senate bill during floor consideration, none directly impacted programs most important to community colleges. The most notable challenge came in the form of a budget point of order raised by Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyoming), chair of the Senate Budget Committee, that, if successful, would have stripped a $100 increase to the Pell Grant maximum from the legislation. The point of order was based on the fact that the Pell boost would raise mandatory spending in future years without offsetting the cost. (Pell Grants are funded by a mix of “discretionary,” i.e., appropriated, funds, and mandatory funds that are provided automatically.) Sixty-eight senators voted to waive the Enzi point of order — eight more than the required 60 votes — so the Pell Grant increase remained in the final bill.

It will not be surprising, however, to see future Pell Grant increases met with similar points of order in coming years.

A busy fall

The LHHS/Defense minibus (a bit of an oxymoron given the overall size of the two spending bills) passed the Senate by an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 85-7, making it the latest exemplar of one of the smoothest appropriations processes in recent memory. In a press release accompanying the bill’s passage, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Alabama), the appropriations committee chair, noted that the full Senate has not passed 9 of the 12 regular appropriations bills by the end of August since 1999. Furthermore, the Senate Appropriations Committee passed all 12 of the FY 2019 funding bills by a combined vote of 363-9.

This is largely a result of the significant increases to overall defense and non-defense spending for FY18 and FY19 that Congress passed last year, which eases partisan tensions. There is a corresponding desire by congressional appropriators to come as close to possible to passing all of the appropriations bills by the start of the fiscal year on October 1, particularly with the November elections looming. It will be difficult but not impossible for Congress to meet the October 1 deadline.

AACC’s advocacy will focus in the coming weeks on achieving a final LHHS bill that combines the best aspects of the House and Senate versions. Community college leaders are urged to make their voices heard to help achieve that goal.

Read previous Washington Watch columns.

About the Author

Jim Hermes
is associate vice president of government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges.