- The House’s Republican-led education committee advanced a bill Wednesday that would dramatically widen the scope of foreign gifts and contracts that colleges would need to report to the federal government.
- During a meeting of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, GOP lawmakers accused colleges of failing to disclose the breadth of their foreign donations. Under Section 117 of the Higher Education Act, they must report to the U.S. Department of Education any totaling $250,000 or more in a year.
- Republicans’ legislative proposal would drop that threshold to $50,000 or more. Committee Democrats condemned the plan as xenophobic and onerous to the colleges and Education Department, the latter of which wouldn’t receive any new funding to help track this data.
Section 117 was a relatively obscure piece of federal law until the Trump administration began drawing attention to colleges’ disclosure requirements. The Education Department at the time opened investigations into high-profile institutions’ foreign gifts and started tying their federal money to compliance with the law.
President Joe Biden has not been as vocal on the issue as his predecessor and former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who said colleges were flouting Section 117. Even after Biden took office, however, bipartisan attention remained on foreign gift reporting, especially as political tensions with countries like China have escalated.
Under the GOP bill — called the Defending Education Transparency and Ending Rogue Regimes Engaging in Nefarious Transactions, or Deterrent Act — colleges wouldn’t be able to accept donations from China or other “countries of concern,” like Russia and Iran, without Education Department permission.
It also would introduce a host of other new rules.
Faculty at colleges with over $50 million in federal research and development funding would need to report foreign gifts valued at over $480 and contracts worth more than $5,000. Wealthy colleges — those with endowments worth $6 billion or more, or have “investments of concern” worth $250 million or more — would also need to detail those investments to the Education Department. Investments of concern in part refer to financial deals with the aforementioned countries of concern.
Repeated violations of the bill could result in colleges losing access to federal funding.
“It is time for responsibility,” said Rep. Michelle Steel, a California Republican and the bill’s chief sponsor.
On the other side of the aisle, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Washington state Democrat, said the legislation “effectively weaponizes the Department of Education.”
Jayapal also said the reporting requirements would burden colleges and the Education Department.
Similar criticisms came from higher ed’s top lobby, the American Council on Education. ACE President Ted Mitchell argued in a Monday letter to the committee’s leaders that bill provisions would lead to “collection of an ocean of data, much of it trivial and inconsequential.”
Mitchell also urged lawmakers to rework the bill to allow the Education Department to pursue regulatory negotiations on Section 117. This process, aptly called negotiated rulemaking, brings in individuals from across the sector who would be affected by a new rule to find common policy ground.
“If the bill includes those problematic provisions as it moves forward, we will likely oppose the legislation, while we do support clarification and strengthening existing Section 117 provisions,” Mitchell wrote.
Committee Democrats introduced four amendments designed to scale back the proposal. One would have swapped out the Republican plan for the Democrats’ — that bill still lowered the reporting threshold, but only to $100,000.
None of the amendments passed. The committee approved the bill to move to the full House in a 27-11 vote.
“We can all agree that institutions must be transparent about the resources they receive from foreign entities,” said Rep. Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat and the committee’s ranking member. “Unfortunately, after weeks of Republican-led dysfunction that immobilized the House, we are taking up a bill that fails to meaningfully address research security at our higher education institutions.”