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ACE president’s weekly email newsletter to higher education leaders

CURRENT EDITION December 1, 2017 ~ Vol. 18, No. 39

This week’s big news is once again the Republican tax bill and whether the Senate will pass its version of the legislation. As of 9 am this morning, the bill was stalled over concerns that it would add to the federal deficit, though Senate GOP leaders were still vowing to hold a final vote later today. Also this week, both the House and Senate have begun laying the groundwork for reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, which promises to dominate the higher education policy landscape next year.

Meanwhile, today is Dec. 1, which begins what has become the traditional countdown to the end-of-year frenzy to keep the federal government funded. Government funding will run out on Dec. 8, and as of this writing it appears that Congress once again will kick the can down the road, this time until Dec. 22. If lawmakers are unable to reach a final agreement by Dec. 22, another stop-gap measure will be necessary to avert a government shutdown.

Republicans and Democrats are deadlocked on how much the government should spend in the coming years and how to deal with issues such as immigration, health care, and disaster aid. Legislation to address Dreamers is one of these sticking points. This week, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) declined to meet with President Trump due to his unwillingness to discuss Dreamers and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy as part of ongoing negotiations, and other Democrats have become increasingly vocal that the issue be included in the year-end spending bill.​​

  •  Senate Continues to Weigh Tax Cuts and Jobs Act

    ​The Senate voted along party lines on Wednesday to start debate on the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (S. 1). The bill appeared to be on its way Thursday afternoon to passage along a mostly party line vote. However, as The New York Times and The Washington Post reported, prospects for the bill’s passage suffered a setback over the issue of how to prevent the measure from causing the federal deficit to soar and whether it was possible to find ways to offset the cost of the legislation. It remains unclear whether a final Senate vote will occur later today. If so, it will happen after both a resolution to the deficit issue and then a so-called vote-a-rama, a marathon of amendment votes.

    One amendment of interest to higher education is on charitable giving. Offered by Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), it would allow non-itemizing taxpayers to deduct charitable gifts up to one-third of the standard deduction threshold. If the amendment were adopted it would allow all non-itemizing individual taxpayers to deduct up to $4,000 in charitable gifts ($8,000 for couples), helping to address the negative impact doubling the standard deduction has on charitable giving. We joined a letter of support for the amendment spearheaded by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. Two other amendments have been offered by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) concerning the provision that places an excise tax on private college endowments. Both amendments are intended to mitigate the damage caused by this fundamentally flawed proposal.

    We sent three letters to the Senate this week outlining our objections to the tax bill and urging Senate leaders to find a way to minimize its substantial and damaging impact on higher education. You can read these letters here:

    • Nov. 29: We expressed continued strong opposition to the provisions in the Senate bill that would make college more expensive and erode the financial stability of public and private, two-year and four-year colleges and universities.
    • Nov. 28: We urged the Senate to reject provisions in the House version of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that repeal and make detrimental changes to education tax benefits that help millions of students and their families finance and repay a college education.
    • Nov. 27: We encouraged the Senate to reconsider the excise tax on private college endowments, referring Senate members to two articles discussing the fundamental flaws in the provision: one by Michael R. Strain, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute; and the second by conservative commentator George Will. We are hopeful that at least one of Sen. Alexander’s amendments will succeed, if the bill moves forward.

    If the Senate does pass the bill, that vote will not be the end of the discussion—there are substantial differences in the House and Senate bills, and they must first be negotiated before sending a final bill to President Trump for his signature. It is not too late to contact Congress to make your own views known and to encourage your faculty, staff, and students to do the same. For assistance in these efforts, see our Tax Reform and Higher Education resource page.

  •  House Set to Unveil HEA Bill; Senate Begins HEA Hearings

    ​The House Committee on Education and the Workforce is set to release a comprehensive bill as early as today to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA), last renewed in 2008. We believe the plan is to mark up the legislation next week, a fast-track process that does not allow much time for analysis or reaction and is designed to discourage amendments. However, it is unclear when the committee intends for the bill to be considered on the House floor. We will be reviewing the bill in detail upon its formal release, and I will have more information for you next week. However, based on what has emerged about the bill so far, there are both positive aspects to the proposal and provisions that concern us.

    We are pleased that the bill includes many of the recommendations of the report of the bipartisan Task Force on Federal Regulation of Higher Education. These steps will simplify and streamline federal mandates that drive up campus administrative costs.

    However, we are deeply concerned that the proposal would undermine decades of federal policy aimed at helping students at the undergraduate and graduate level afford a high-quality higher education. Most notably, this measure would immediately lead to higher interest charges every year for some six million student borrowers and eliminate 1.5 million financial aid grants.

    In the interim, The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday published a series of articles about the pending legislation based on a summary the newspaper reviewed, and other media outlets followed suit yesterday—including Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

    Meanwhile in the Senate, the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee held a full committee hearing Wednesday on “Reauthorizing the Higher Education Act: Examining Proposals to Simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.”

    Both Chair Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) used the hearing to signal their priorities for the upcoming reauthorization of HEA. In his opening remarks, Alexander noted, “My central focus will be to make it simpler and easier for students to apply for federal aid and to pay their loans back and easier for college administrators to cut through the jungle of bureaucratic red tape.” In her remarks, Murray laid out four key areas that HEA will need to address: the increasing costs of college; college accountability and student success; addressing barriers for working families, students of color, and first generation students attending colleges; and threats to a safe learning environment. Alexander said he would be introducing new legislation soon to simplify the FAFSA by incorporating tax information already shared by families with the federal government.

    An archived webcast of the hearing can be found here.

  •  IN BRIEF: Net Neutrality

    The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is expected to reverse Obama-era regulations commonly known as net neutrality at its Dec. 14 meeting. The plan is expected to pass on a party-line vote with the support of the commission’s Republican members. ACE has been closely involved in this process, and on Aug. 30 we joined several other associations in submitting reply comments opposing the FCC’s efforts. The comments emphasized that preserving an open internet is essential for research, education, the free flow of information, and other public interests served by universities and libraries, reinforcing comments​ the associations filed in July.

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