As Congress wraps up its work for 2001, it is clear that while a number of issues have been resolved, many more will continue to confront higher education in the New Year.
The events of Sept. 11 initially had a major impact on Congresss agenda. Suddenly, fights over the budget and other differences between the parties were buried under a spirit of bipartisanship. Legislation was quickly enacted to provide $40 billion in funds to help rebuild New York and to carry out military operations in Afghanistan.
That dynamic changed again when letters laced with anthrax spores were found in the congressional mail system, closing each of the House and Senate office buildings for days or weeks, and causing a huge concern over future biological, chemical or even nuclear attacks on America.
But in the ensuing weeks, the fabric of bipartisanship began to tatter, as both parties began to position themselves on issues on which they have long disagreed. Fights over how to stimulate the languishing economy continued for weeks, and as of this writing had not yet been resolved. What was forecast to be a $300 million surplus in January 2001 eroded, and by December the nations balance sheet is barely positive. Additional funds for domestic needs have been fiercely debated, and with the 2002 congressional elections looming, it is clear that each side is looking for a potential advantage.
On balance, 2001 was a good year in Congress for higher education. Progress was made on a variety of priority concerns, including improved tax laws affecting colleges and their students and increased research appropriations, particularly for the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Pell grants also saw an increase. (A more detailed wrap-up of the First Session of the 107th Congress will be provided in January.)
For next year, the outlook is uncertain. Concerns over how best to oversee both student immigration laws and research-related issues will likely continue. The federal budget will show a deficit and, when added to the current economic recession, will put a strain on the 2003 budget that will be proposed in early February. Many programs will face flat or reduced funding as the President begins to negotiate with Congress over spending. Over-arching all of these issues will be the November elections, with both the House and Senate closely divided.
With Congress slated to return to Washington Jan. 23, the holiday season will bring a short respite to the debates on these and many other issues.