A House committee voted July 15 against an amendment to repeal the drug provision of the Higher Education Act, a law that has denied financial aid for college to at least 160,000 applicants since going into effect in July 2000. But the bill that was "marked up" -- the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act itself, included a partial reform to the law, and two Democratic members of the committee who voted against repeal five years ago changed their votes to "yes" this time. Supporters have no returned their attention to the Senate, where prospects are thought to be better.
"There is a need for change with this law. It is unjust to too many of our nation's students, who are trying to better themselves with education," said Rep. Davis. "It punishes individuals twice for the same infraction, and it has a particularly significant impact on the minority community."
The HEA drug provision has a "pernicious and discriminatory effect," said Rep. Kucinich. "The HEA was meant to open doors, but this provision abruptly closes those doors. This provision pushes those who could most benefit from education toward a cycle of recidivism instead. The war on drugs should not turn into a war on educational opportunity."
Rep. Souder pronounced himself deeply offended by the suggestion that his provision had a discriminatory impact. "To imply that this provision somehow discriminates against minorities is a terrible slam at minorities," he said, adding accurately that there are no statistics showing African Americans use drugs more often than other social groups. But African Americans are nonetheless arrested, convicted, and imprisoned at much higher rates, and Souder presented no evidence to prove that some of this disparity is not present among Africans Americans who are attempting to enroll in schools.
Under fire from a broad-based grouping of student, education, religious, civil rights, civil liberties, and drug reform groups organized by the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform (CHEAR), the provision's sponsor, Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), successfully moved to reform the measure by limiting its applicability to students who were in school and receiving financial assistance at the time they committed their offenses. During debate on the Andrews repeal amendment, Souder said he meant all along for his provision only to apply to students who are currently in school, the "fix" that the committee earlier adopted. "As an evangelical Christian who believes in repentance, I can't conceive of holding people accountable for past mistakes," he said.
"We certainly welcome any change to reinstate financial aid to students, but this partial reform is like slapping a band-aid on a gaping wound," said Tom Angell, media director for Students for Sensible Drug Policy, a key player in the coalition. "This is a 10% solution to a law that is 100% flawed," he told DRCNet. "This law will continue to affect only students from low- and middle-income families and students who are doing well in school because there are already minimum grade average requirements for receiving financial aid. It will also continue to have a disproportionate effect on minorities."
Still, said Angell, supporters of repeal took heart in the progress they have made. "We are happy to see this issue finally being addressed in Congress after seven years and all those students getting the door slammed shut in their faces," Angell said. "And we are real happy we have what is essentially a solid Democratic bloc on our side. We think our chances are better once this gets to the Senate HELP Committee."
"Congress has finally taken action after years of neglect, said CHEAR spokesman Chris Mulligan, "but thousands of students will still be yanked out of school each year as long as the drug question remains on the federal student aid application."
Even the limited Souder "fix" would not have happened without the pressure for outright repeal, said Angell. "The only reason the Souder proposal was introduced is because of all the outrage stirred up by SSDP and other organizations working to change the law. It is a red herring, an effort to divert blame from himself for writing this law in the first place."
DRCNet executive director and HEA repeal campaign eminence gris David Borden had a slightly sunnier take on the "fix." "At this point, we have clearly made our case that the Souder 'fix' does not resolve the issue and we are not going to go away," he said. "I don't believe its passage will cause the repeal campaign to lose any steam. In fact, it may help by clarifying the issue. Souder won't be able to pose as the reformer anymore once his 'fix' becomes law and hundreds of groups around the country are still calling for full repeal. And by the way, why has it taken him so long to get it accomplished? Still, the Souder fix is an improvement, it is a partial victory on the path to full repeal that will help thousands of would-be students in the meantime."
It isn't just CHEAR calling for outright repeal of the provision. In January, the congressionally-created Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance recommended that the drug conviction question be completely removed from the financial aid application, calling it "irrelevant" to aid eligibility. The committee also found that the drug question's mere presence on the form deters some students from applying. Under the Souder "fix," that question will remain.
Now it is back to the Senate. "We knew we couldn't win in the House this time, but it was important to lobby on it anyway -- otherwise, legislators would note they weren't hearing from people, and that could have set us back," said Borden. "But our focus for at least the last two years has been the Senate. I don't know yet if we can win there, but the signals are pretty good. We're having Republican staffers tell us this isn't even controversial anymore because so many people have contacted them about it."
While repeal supporters are taking aim at the Senate, the House repeal amendment's sponsor, Rep. Andrews, told DRCNet he would be back to fight for repeal until his colleagues get it right. "I believe in redemption," said Andrews. "Barring people who made a mistake under our drug laws from receiving an education hurts the community as well as the person who made the mistake. I will continue to press this amendment because those who voted against it should be given an opportunity to redeem themselves."
The coalition to repeal the HEA drug provision did not prevail in the House, but its efforts to do so brought welcome press attention to the issue. Both the New York Times and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune editorialized in favor of repeal in the days before the vote, while the St. Petersburg Times ran a sympathetic article on the effort featuring, among others DRCNet's Borden.
Some repeal supporters voiced frustration with the two committee Democrats who voted against the measure. "The real disappointment is with Democrats like Wu and Barrow, who broke ranks with their party on this issue," said CHEAR's Mulligan. "We didn't really do much outreach in Georgia, but we did work on Wu, and he still voted against us. There is no reason for either of these guys to be voting like that."
Mulligan also expressed disappointment that the repeal effort was unable to sway a single Republican. "We knew we didn't have a lot of support on that side of the aisle, but it is still disappointing that not one Republican member changed his mind. Take Delaware Congressman Michael Castle. "We had 11 Delaware state legislators call him up and urge him to support repeal, we had 20 different organizations in Delaware lobbying him on this, and he still votes no."
While Mulligan pointed to the empty half of the glass, Borden discussed the full half. "I'm not especially perturbed that this conservative committee in the House voted the way we expected them to, but I am pleased that we picked up two Democrats, Carolyn McCarthy of New York and Ron Kind of Wisconsin, who didn't vote our way five years ago, but came around this time." As for the campaign's inability to bring Castle to the light, Borden said that people in Delaware had done outstanding work and that someone like Castle might act differently if his vote had been a deciding one. "It was a party line vote for the Republicans. It's not particularly appealing for a legislator to break ranks with his party and face the wrath of his leadership when his 'yes' vote would still have not have changed the outcome."
Part of the Republican intransigence in the House is because of its two-year election cycle, Mulligan suggested, while part of it is due to the make-up of the House membership. "These representatives are up for a vote every two years and they are looking over their shoulders and they don't like to talk about drugs. At the same time, on the House side, it seems like every Republican on the committee always agrees with the chair. It is rare to see them break from the chair."
The Senate holds brighter prospects, Mulligan said. "It's a little different in the Senate. They don't have to worry about reelection every two years, and some of them actually have their own opinions. We are hoping some Senate Republicans will stand up to the chair and the Senate leadership and say this is a stupid law that needs to be repealed. That we lost in the House was disappointing, but not a shocker. It reminds us that our real focus is on the Senate, and we have a lot of work to do."
The Senate Health Committee hearing on HEA reauthorization is tentatively set for September 7.
In the meantime, said SSDP's Angell, the repeal effort will stay focused on the ultimate goal. "The students want absolute repeal of the drug provision, and we won't settle for band-aids. We will be here on this issue until the law is repealed."