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House Democrats and Saudi Money


Remember “Saudi in the Classroom?” That’s where I explained how the Saudis are using federal subsidies to university programs of Middle East Studies (under Title VI of the Higher Education Act) as a kind of Trojan horse to gain influence over American K-12 education. Now it looks like the House Democrats mean to let the Saudis get away with it. When I wrote “Saudi in the Classroom,” back in July, I made a point of praising the very reasonable bipartisan compromise on Title VI reform crafted by Kennedy and Enzi in the Senate. But now, under pressure from the higher education lobby (really Juan Cole and his radical professor pals from the Middle East Studies Association–MESA), the House Democrats have gutted every proposed reform of this disastrously broken federal subsidy program.

This is actually a huge change for congressional Democrats. When the Republicans were in the majority in the House, they made a point of crafting a bipartisan compromise with the Democrats on this issue. The House acknowledged serious problems with Title VI (professors boycotting national-security-related scholarship programs, a dearth of students with skills in Middle Eastern languages entering government service, deeply biased “public outreach” programs), and the two parties unanimously voted for reform.

But now, for the first time, House Democrats have turned against reform, totally caving in to their radical professor friends. It’s a perfect illustration of the claim that the Democratic congress is more interested in posturing for its radical base than in actually getting something productive done. Foolishly, I think, the Democrats have now turned the abuse of these federal subsides into an openly partisan issue. (Do the Dems really want to hitch their fortunes to Juan Cole and MESA?)

After gutting every existing proposal for reform of Title VI, the House Democrats have offered a single provision as window-dressing to cover their…retreat. The Democratic version of Title VI reauthorization includes a requirement that programs receiving federal subsidies disclose donations from foreign governments. Sounds like a good idea, but the reporting threshold is a ludicrously high one million dollars. The Saudis can easily circumvent that by spreading their largesse around a bit further. And of course, reporting is only the beginning of the story. By killing off every proposal for program oversight, the Dems have eliminated the prospect of actually doing anything about even such foreign influence as is reported.

On top of all that, the reporting provision will almost certainly not survive conference and make it into the final bill. The higher education lobby will squelch it, fearing that it might set a precedent for passage of a truly serious reporting provision under some future Republican congress.

Meanwhile, the Democrats have eliminated the Advisory Board that would have provided real oversight for this program. They have cut the grievance procedure agreed to by both parties in the Senate, which would have permitted complaints about the sort of public outreach programs I described in “Saudi in the Classroom.” The Democrats have also eliminated a move to collect data on how many students who get these federal subsidies actually go into government service (hint: very few). And these are only a few of the reform measures accepted by both parties in the Senate, but totally dropped by Democrats in the House.

Today the proposed reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (including Title VI subsidies to university programs of Middle East Studies) is going through committee “markup” in the House. Republicans will very likely offer amendments to put the heretofore bipartisan reform provisions, now gutted by the Democrats, back into the bill. And if they’re smart, the Republicans will also offer an amendment lowering the foreign money reporting threshold way below the virtually meaningless one million dollars level in the Democratic bill.


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