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Senate Passes VA and Transportation Bill

The Senate has passed two key pieces of legislation clearing them for the President’s signature.

The Senate has passed legislation overhauling the scandalized Department of Veterans Affairs, by a vote of  91-3. The House considered the measure earlier in the week. The measure contains provisions expanding Graduate Medical Education at VA Hospitals as well as requiring public universities to offer in-state tuition to active duty servicemembers, their spouses, and dependents. 

Also, the Senate has cleared, by a vote of 81-13, an $11 billion bill to keep highway and transit programs funded through May, acting quickly following House passage of the bill earlier today. Tonight’s vote heads off the possibility of states having federal money for transportation projects throttled starting tomorrow.

House Considers VA Conference Report

Both the House and Senate intend to bring to the floor this week a conference agreement to reform the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) and increase transparency and services in the Department of Veterans Administration (VA). The House will be the first to consider, what has been a delicate and sometimes contentious agreement to create, the conference committee report this afternoon. 

The legislation (conference report to accompany H.R. 3230, the Veterans’ Access to Care through Choice, Accountability, and Transparency Act of 2014) primarily deals with care at veteran medical facilities.

Provisions of interest to UW include:

  • The conference report requires the VA to establish medical residency programs, or to ensure that sufficient residency positions exist at facilities with programs in specialties facing a shortage of physicians or located in a community that is designated as a health professional shortage area. It increases by up to 1,500 the number of graduate medical education residents over a five-year period, with a priority for primary care, mental health and other specialties as VA determines is appropriate.
  • It also expands certain educational benefits to the spouses of servicemembers who die in the line of duty, including those who died since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and it requires colleges and universities to provide in-state tuition to veterans under the Post-9/11 GI Bill regardless of how long they have lived in the state.

After whistleblowers revealed that some employees of the Veterans Affairs (VA) Department were falsifying wait-time records for medical appointments and keeping many patients on unofficial waitlists to create the appearance that they were reaching wait time targets, there has been nearly universal Congressional support to make the VA more accountable.

A Congressional Budget Office estimate released late Tuesday stated the agreement would be a net increase to the deficit by about $10 billion through FY 2024.

The House is expected to pass the measure today and the Senate is expected to consider it later in the week.

Rep. Ryan Anti-Poverty Plan and Higher Education

On Thursday, House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) announced what he is calling  a new anti-poverty plan that proposes sweeping changes to the safety net through a state-led pilot program. Announced at the the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Ryan’s plan calls for streamlining the student-aid system, capping federal loans to parents and graduate students, a database for tracking recipients of federal aid, and further consolidation of federal job-training programs.

Big focus points that impact higher education include:

  • Simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
  • Modernize and reform the Pell program.
  •  Cap federal loans to graduate students and parents.
  • Consider reforms to the TRIO programs.
  • Expand funding for federal Work-Study programs.
  • Build stronger partnerships with post-secondary institutions.
  • Reform the accreditation process.

Some of the proposals in Thursday’s plan mirror ideas in the House Republican road map for reauthorization, including replacing the current patchwork of federal student-aid programs with one grant, one loan, and one work-study program. Both plans would make Pell Grants available year-round, creating “flex” funds that students could draw from until they graduated or exhausted their eligibility for aid. Also, both would remake federal college-access programs, with Mr. Ryan’s plan suggesting a single program.

But the Ryan plan offers more specifics than does the House Republican list, particularly when it comes to accreditation. His plan would make it easier for new accreditors to gain federal approval and would allow accreditors to recognize specific courses, not just colleges or programs.

The plan also calls for the creation of a “Commission on Evidence-Based Policy Making” that would explore whether, and how, to create a federal clearinghouse that could link anonymous participants across programs to provide a more complete picture of their effectiveness. The clearinghouse might also contain state, local, and educational data sets, like National Student Clearinghouse.

As this proposal and others continue to be introduced and move through Congress, the Office of Federal Relations will continue to monitor and update this issue.

Student Loan Interest Rates Rise

Annual student loan interest rates increase tomorrow, July 1st. This represents the first full year loan rates will be tied to the 10-year Treasury note under the deal struck by Congress last summer. Rates will rise from 3.86 to 4.66 percent for undergraduate Stafford loans, 5.41 to 6.21 percent for graduate Stafford loans and 6.41 to 7.21 percent for parent and graduate PLUS Loans. The maximum Pell Grant will also increase tomorrow by $85 to $5,730. The Institute for College Access and Success offers a helpful fact sheet breaking down the changes.

Higher Ed Legislation Advances

Today Senate HELP Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) will introduce his plan to reauthorize the Higher Education Act. The Higher Education Affordability Act focuses on four goals: Increasing college affordability, helping struggling borrowers, strengthening accountability, and improving transparency. These goals will be achieved through 21 action points, including tightening for-profit regulations, better accountability metrics for colleges and universities, and a reduction in loan borrower fees.

The Harkin proposal overlaps ever so slightly with goals outlined yesterday by Congressman John Kline (R-MN) and House Education & the Workforce Committee Republicans. Kline plans to introduce the first of a series of HEA-related bills, which will revolve around transparency, accountability, a simplified aid system, and limited federal regulation. We expect to see this bill later in the week.

Also today, the Senate will take up the Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act (WIOA), which would modernize the workforce education system in the U.S. Democratic Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and GOP Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA) both spent years negotiating the long overdue reauthorization. Lawmakers will consider the bill under a unanimous consent agreement. This is the first significant step in years toward reauthorization.

And finally, House Ways and Means Committee will mark up today a pair of bills addressing the child tax credit and education tax credits.The education tax bill would streamline a laundry list of credits and expand and make permanent the existing American Opportunity Tax Credit. The Child Tax Credit bill, introduced Monday by Congresswomen Lynn Jenkins (R-KS), would expand the number of individuals and families who can access the credit by increasing the income threshold from $110,000 to $150,000 for joint filers.