On Tuesday night, career college leaders and lobbyists expressed their appreciation to the new chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce the best way they know how -- by wining and dining him and opening up their checkbooks. The Political Action Committee connected to the group formerly known as the Career College Association hosted a dinner reception for Rep. John Kline (R-MN) at “the refined and elegant” Capitol Hill Club, which is the premiere social club and restaurant for Republicans in the nation’s capital..
The career college group, which is now known as the Association for Private Sector Colleges and Universities (APSCU), invited for-profit college officials who were in town for the organization’s “Hill Day and Policy Forum” to join in the festivities. Those who wished to attend were required to make a donation to Kline’s re-election campaign of either $2,500 to be considered a “sponsor” of the event, or $1,000 to be a “patron,” according to a copy of the invitation that Higher Ed Watch obtained.
In the short time he has been the committee’s chairman, Kline has certainly given the industry a lot to be thankful for. Last month, he succeeded in pushing through the House an amendment to a fiscal year 2011 spending bill that would block the Department of Education from issuing its proposed Gainful Employment rule. And this week and next, his panel and its higher education subcommittee are holding multiple hearings taking aim at the Obama administration’s assorted efforts to rein in the worst players and practices in the industry.
Kline’s staff and supporters will undoubtedly say that he is not influenced by such donations. He is already a strong supporter of the for-profit college sector and would be defending them against these “job killing regulations” (as he likes to call them), with or without the contributions that the industry is bestowing on him.
In this case, that’s probably true (although we think it's fair to ask whether he would have made this issue as big a priority as he has). But wouldn’t it be nice for a change to see a lawmaker in a powerful position like Kline’s take a stance, without having any expectation of being compensated for it?
The unfortunate truth is that Kline is just the latest in a string of House Education Committee chairmen who have used the position to raise money from powerful interests, like the student loan and for-profit higher education industries, to build up their war chests. These chairmen have not only used the money they’ve received for their own campaigns but to spread the wealth to other lawmakers to strengthen their clout within their parties and move up the chain of command in the chamber.
As the committee’s chairmen for much of last decade, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Rep. Howard P. (Buck) McKeon were especially notorious for their aggressive fundraising. So much so that some lobbyists from these industries used to privately complain to reporters such as myself when I was at The Chronicle of Higher Education that they felt like they were being shaken down.
But it’s not just Republicans who have looked to these industries for support. Rep. George Miller, the California Democrat who led the committee from 2006 through 2010, has not been shy about taking donations from career college lobbyists and leaders. According to a Reuters report in January, Miller was the second largest recipient in the House of campaign cash from the proprietary sector during the 2010 election campaign , taking in $75,000. That's $10,000 more than for-profit college officials shelled out to Kline -- who was the the panel's ranking Republican -- during that cycle. [To be fair, the student loan industry wasn't too generous to Miller-- which isn't surprising considering that he led the fight in the House to eliminate the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program.]
When I wrote about this subject for The Chronicle in 2004, Thomas R. Wolanin, who was a Democratic aide on the House education committee from the 1970s to the 1990s, had this to say about the panel had changed over the years: “Policy doesn’t count anymore. It's all about politics and power, and who gets money, and not about broad discussions of public policy.”
Given the feting that Congressman Kline received on Tuesday night, that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.