Pressure builds on Democratic leadership over HBCU funding

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Pressure is building on Democratic leadership to ensure the party’s $3.5 trillion social spending package includes more grant funding for historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) members and advocacy groups are seeking changes to legislative language that they say would force HBCUs to unnecessarily compete against other minority serving institutions for grant funding.

Rep. Alma Adams (D-Ga.) was the first to threaten to withhold support for the overall spending bill if the text is not amended. Since then, CBC members such as Reps. Federica Wilson (D-Fla.) and Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) have voiced similar concerns with the measure.

The pressure comes as House Democrats, who have a razor-thin majority in the chamber, are already facing potential defections from moderates on issues such as drug pricing. Democrats can afford to lose only three caucus members if they hope to pass the $3.5 trillion package that includes much of President Biden’s economic agenda.

In an interview with The Hill this week, Wilson said she is “prepared to vote against” the package if the text surrounding the grants program isn’t changed.

“I would definitely be moving in that direction,” Wilson told The Hill. “There’s no question about it. That’s how strongly I feel about it.”

Sewell said that while she feels the coming spending package being drafted by Democrats would “make significant investments in HBCU excellence,” she also said she shares “many of Rep. Adams’s concerns.”

In a statement to The Hill, a representative for Rep. André Carson (D-Ind.) said the congressman did not have a comment about the possibility of withholding a vote on the floor as leadership continues to work on the legislation.

However, the spokesperson also said “the congressman wants to see resources and funding expanded for all of these important schools  without forcing them to compete against themselves.”

The situation underscores the tall task party leadership faces as it works to craft a massive spending plan key to Biden’s economic agenda. Democrats have struggled to remain united amid spending negotiations for the coming package, which the party hopes to pass without any GOP support, allowing them to sidestep a Republican filibuster in the Senate. 

In recent days, tensions have hit a fever pitch in Congress as leadership tries to find middle ground between warring demands from different factions over issues ranging from proposed tax hikes on wealthy corporations and individuals to negotiations for lower drug prices.

Leadership is expected to make further changes to the legislation before it comes to a floor vote, and HBCU advocates hope the language regarding the grants program is one of them.

For Adams and some of her colleagues, a quick and easy fix is needed to the portion of the legislation advanced last week by the House Education and Labor Committee. Under the existing language, both HBCUs and minority-serving institutions would be able to apply for the grant funding, but advocates say the text fails to set up specific funding streams.

Advocates also argue that the provision as it stands would give an unfair leg up to other minority-serving institutions for grant funding, noting HBCUs typically have smaller endowments, are tuition-dependent and, due to a history of discrimination, have had less access to capital.

In a letter to fellow CBC leaders over the weekend, Adams said the policy runs contrary to Biden’s agenda, given his 2020 campaign pledge to “require competitive grant programs make similar universities compete against each other, ensuring that HBCUs only compete against HBCUs.”

Adams, a member of the Education and Labor Committee, is also concerned about another provision that would direct the secretary of Education to give priority to schools that receive less than $10 million annually in federal research money. 

While Adams said she understands the language was aimed at supporting schools with little research capacity, she also said the legislation would ultimately slow efforts of finally seeing an HBCU break into the top tier of research activity for colleges and universities.

And she’s not alone.

Lodriguez Murray, vice president of public policy and government affairs at the United Negro College Fund, said the second tier HBCUs “are not treated well in the bill to give them the springboard” to join top-tier schools.

Murray said it’s important the provisions treat HBCUs more “fairly so that they can have a strong possibility of moving up the ladder and garnering more research-intensive opportunities.”

Murray also pointed out the contrast between the legislation and Biden’s previous proposal for north of $90 billion to be put toward HBCUs and minority-serving institutions.

“Forty-five billion was for research and development infrastructure,” he said, pointing to past proposals from the White House for Biden’s American Jobs Plan.

“And so now to go from $45 billion for that purpose, which would have been a big enough pie for all the different types of institutions to compete for … to go down to a $2 billion pot. That’s quite the juxtaposition,” he said.

A Democratic committee aide said Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, has raised lawmakers’ concerns with House leadership over the HBCU funding portion of the budget reconciliation package.

Wilson, who is also a member of the Education and Labor Committee, said she was assured by Scott that the legislation surrounding the grant structure would change before it comes to the floor for a vote.

“It’s wrong. It needs to be changed,” Wilson said, adding “it’s not a monetary addition” but “a policy correction.”

Scott’s office did not return a request for comment. 

Tags Alma Adams Andre Carson Bobby Scott Joe Biden Terri Sewell

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