By:  Ariana Figueroa
Source: NC Policy Watch

U.S. House committees advance ambitious education and climate initiatives

Proposals would fund universal pre-K and free community college, hasten shift to renewable energy

A trio of important U.S. House committees have advanced ambitious plans to address national education needs and the global climate emergency.

On the education front, the House Education & Labor Committee on Friday finished a marathon markup of legislation that would provide universal pre-K education, expand federal Pell Grants for college students and institute two years of free community college.

The $761 billion measure, approved on a party-line 28-22 vote, will be combined with other pieces of Democrats’ giant $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation measure, regarded as the biggest change in U.S. social policy in decades. 

“The high cost of child care is failing families’ budgets and pushing millions of Americans out of the workforce—the majority of those are women,” Committee Chairman Bobby Scott, (D-Va.), said in his opening statement.

Scott said the lack of affordable child care is also “hurting our economy, as employers are struggling to fill job openings to meet the demand and grow their businesses.”

Republicans objected to many of the amendments offered during the markup, citing high costs and arguing that the reconciliation process should not be used to make policy changes. 

When the measure is considered by the Senate, that chamber’s parliamentarian has the authority to rule against any section deemed ineligible under reconciliation, which allows bills to be passed with just a majority vote.

“The provisions in the Committee’s portion of the Build Back Better Act will lower costs for nearly every American family, secure good-paying jobs for millions of American workers, and set a strong foundation for America’s children,” Scott said in a statement after the committee vote.

Here are some of the education policies that the reconciliation package would address:

Child care and early education

  • $450 billion in universal pre-K for 3-and-4-year-olds
  • $85 billion to repair and modernize school infrastructure
  • $35 billion in child nutrition programs to allow an additional 9 million kids to receive free school lunch. The program also would create a nationwide program to provide a Summer Electronic Benefits Program for low-income children. 

Higher Education

  • $111 billion to provide two years of tuition-free community college beginning in fiscal 2023-24 and lasting for five years through 2027-28
  • Increases in Pell Grants and expanded eligibility for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, known as Dreamers. Pell Grants would receive a $500 increase for the maximum grant for the 2022-23 award year and last through 2029-30.
  • Investments at Historically Black Colleges, Tribal Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-Serving Institutions and other minority institutions

More than 40 amendments were attempted by lawmakers, but only a handful were accepted. Those that were included in the measure:

  • From Rep. Alma Adams, (D-N.C.), an amendment to help HBCUs receive equitable funding for the infrastructure of those institutions as well as grant opportunities
  • From Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, (D-N.M.), an amendment to include artists and workers in the entertainment industry in any grants designated to workforce training and employment opportunities under the Department of Labor
  • From Rep. Mikie Sherrill, (D-N.J.), an amendment specifying a family does not pay more than 7% of its income for universal pre-K programs
  • From Scott, an amendment to ensure the Department of Labor is fully funded to carry out several work programs

Four big climate items

Meanwhile, the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee late Thursday approved its first piece of Democrats’ sweeping $3.5 trillion spending blueprint on a party-line 24-13 vote. 

Among the highest priorities for President Joe Biden in the plan was addressing climate change, and the panel included initiatives ranging from oil and gas reform to offshore wind ventures. 

The House action was only the starting point for the bill, which will be combined with those of several other House committees to form a massive spending package meant to remake U.S. policy on education, health care, taxes and more.

The larger House bill will then be subject to change during negotiations with Senate Democrats, where moderates like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin III are already cautioning the $3.5 trillion mark may be too high.

Democratic committee staff said the Natural Resources portion includes about $30 billion in spending and increases revenue by about $3 billion. The Congressional Budget Office will provide a more formal estimate.

The climate items are key for progressives in the House, dozens of whom have pledged not to support the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill unless a more robust climate bill also passes.

Here are four pieces of the Natural Resources Committee’s bill that could have a major climate impact if they’re passed into law.

Oil and gas reforms 

The Natural Resources bill would make several changes to oil and gas production that climate activists have been seeking for years. 

The bill would raise rates on oil and gas developers operating on public lands and waters. The royalty rate would rise from 12.5% to 20% for onshore and offshore development. The bill would also raise the minimum bid for Bureau of Land Management parcels sold for oil and gas development from $2 per acre to $10 per acre and ban noncompetitive leases for development on public lands. 

Low-cost and noncompetitive leasing allows energy companies to buy drilling rights on parcels of public lands without competing at lease sale auctions. Conservation advocates say that allows energy companies to lock up lands that could otherwise be used for conservation or recreation. 

Committee Republicans said those measures would reduce jobs in the oil and gas industry. U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, (R-La.), introduced an amendment Thursday that would scrap the royalty rate increases until a government study could show it wouldn’t hurt jobs. The committee rejected that amendment along party lines.

Offshore wind 

As part of an agenda meant to move the United States away from fossil fuels and toward sustainable energy sources, the bill would reestablish the federal government’s authority to hold lease sales for offshore wind development off the Atlantic coasts of Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina, and in the Gulf of Mexico. 

The bill would also direct the Interior Department to hold lease sales for offshore windmills in U.S. territories. 

Those provisions are also expected to raise money and help offset the bill’s costs.

$9.5 billion for Great Lakes restoration and coastal resilience

Seagrass, salt marshes, mangrove forests and other coastal ecosystems “are incredibly effective at capturing and storing carbon,” one of the main contributors to climate change, according to the National Ocean Service, an agency within the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Those habitats and barrier islands also provide resilience to coastal communities from hurricanes and other extreme weather connected to climate change. But those areas are also already being affected by rising sea levels, lessening their effectiveness to act as barriers between ocean storms and land.

Nearly one-third of the bill’s spending would go toward reestablishing such features along coasts and in the Great Lakes. Those projects would aim to increase protection from sea-level rise, flooding and storms, while also adding carbon sinks like seagrass. 

$3.5 billion for climate jobs programs 

The bill provides $3 billion for the creation of a Civilian Climate Corps and $500 million for a similar program focused only on tribal lands.

Combined with the portions of the spending plan funding the U.S. Forest Service and Labor Department, the reconciliation bill could see $49 billion for the new CCC and wildfire preparedness programs, according to an analysis from U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, (D-Colo.), who has introduced standalone corps creation bills in the past. 

The corps would put people to work on conservation, forest management and other climate-related tasks. It’s meant to both provide jobs to mostly young people looking for careers in environmental fields, and to help fight climate change and mitigate its effects.

Republicans on the committee opposed the program’s creation, saying it would only increase federal bureaucracy and wasn’t needed to address unemployment at a time when many private employers are looking for workers. 

A boost for HBCU’s and climate change preparedness

Finally, on Monday, the U.S. House Agriculture Committee finished marking up its section of the $3.5 trillion reconciliation package.

The agriculture portion would provide funding for historically Black land grant colleges and investments in urban agriculture, along with boosting U.S. Department of Agriculture programs to address climate change threats in farming.

The $66 billion agriculture measure passed along party lines in a 27-24 vote. It will be combined with other sections of the massive reconciliation bill being written by other committees as Democrats undertake a major rewrite of U.S. social policy.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman David Scott, (D-Ga.), said that it’s important for Congress to devote money to climate change prevention, and he pointed to the fires that are currently ravaging the West. 

A good portion of the funds would be dedicated to climate change solutions and prevention. 

“We’ve got to make sure that we invest in ways in which to protect and enhance our forest lands,” he said.

The measure would provide up to $40 billion in forestry programs to help combat forest fires on public and private lands. That includes up to $9 billion in forest restoration and resiliency grants.

Also in the bill is $190 million in scholarships for 1890s Land Grant Institutions, historically Black colleges established in 1890 in states including Ohio, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Maryland and Virginia.

The committee set aside more than $7 billion for general research, education and development programs, “to advance the American food and agriculture system’s global competitiveness, innovation, infrastructure, food security, equity, and climate change resilience,” the committee said in a fact sheet. 

The measure includes $1 billion in biofuel expansions and $400 million in loan relief for rural borrowers, a provision that Rep. Cindy Axne, (D-Iowa), worked on.

“From investments in our rural businesses to key infrastructure funding to promote biofuels and other clean energy sources, this section of the Build Back Better Act will support Iowa’s communities and chart a path to a cleaner environment for both ourselves and our children,” Axne said in a statement.