House Republicans advance two contested antisemitism bills

July 10, 2024
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The House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday advanced two bills aimed at holding universities accountable for their treatment of Jewish students. One penalizes colleges that receive civil judgments for civil rights violations, while the other expands an existing endowment tax and incentivizes elite universities to enroll fewer international students.

Though Democratic committee members questioned whether the bills will effectively cut down on campus antisemitism and warned of detrimental consequences, the majority Republicans said they represent necessary steps toward ensuring colleges are held accountable and use taxpayer dollars fairly.

“The ongoing explosion of antisemitism has shined a spotlight on the way colleges have ceased to be centers of higher learning,” said Representative Jason Smith, the Republican from Missouri who chairs the committee. “Legislation before us today will impose real financial consequences on universities that continue to turn a blind eye.”

Smith’s committee has held several previous hearings as part of a broader “House-wide effort” to combat campus antisemitism, which critics say is capitalizing on the stir of recent protests to help win control of Congress and the White House for the GOP this fall.

Ways and Means has also been investigating whether several elite universities, including Harvard, should retain their tax-exempt status. Smith said in his opening remarks that the investigation has found that “weak university leadership has failed to protect students” and that “radical” faculty members have emboldened students to take part in antisemitic activity.

Following Tuesday’s markup and party-line votes on both bills, they now go to the House floor for a vote. Even if they pass the House, they are likely dead on arrival in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Still, Democrats and higher education groups are expressing concern that the bills could entangle universities in ineffective and costly litigation and would punish them for enrolling international students.

During nearly two hours of discussion and debate, Democrats argued that the GOP’s “unvetted” and “ineffective” tax-policy response tactic will have consequences for existing civil rights procedures, university finances and the United States’ economic competitiveness—some intentional on Republicans’ part and others not.

“All the legislation under consideration is a preview of the Republican Project 2025,” said Representative Richard Neal, a Democrat from Massachusetts who serves as ranking member, referring to the Heritage Foundation’s detailed blueprint for a potential second Trump administration. “It won’t touch the issues at the heart of the American people, but rather it will deepen the extremism across the country.”

The American Council on Education also opposed both bills. “Rather than helping campuses … this would unnecessarily drain institutional resources away from effective compliance with Title VI, while doing little to protect students against hate-based discrimination,” ACE said in a Monday letter to committee leaders.

University Accountability Act

Democratic and Republican members argued vociferously about the first of the bills, known as the University Accountability Act. If passed, it would levy a financial penalty against schools that receive a civil judgment from a federal court for violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law requires federally funded institutions to protect students from discrimination based on shared ancestry, which encompasses both antisemitism and Islamophobia.

Institutions found liable for violating Title VI would be charged either $100,000 or fined 5 percent of the school’s “aggregate administrative compensation” as reported on IRS Form 990—whichever is greater. After any three civil rights violations, the university’s tax-exempt status could be revoked entirely by the Internal Revenue Service.

The committee’s chief of staff noted that the penalty for public institutions would be “generally $100,000,” as they are not required to file 990 forms.

The bill comes on the heels of a heated GOP push to address antisemitism on college campuses through both combative hearings with university officials, wide-ranging investigations and a highly contested Antisemitism Awareness bill that would codify a broad definition of antisemitism. But specifically using the tax code to address antisemitism—or any form of discrimination, for that matter—is an approach Representative Brad Schneider, a Democrat from Illinois, said was “hyperpartisan” and “will not move us forward.”

“We for sure have to do better,” said Schneider, who is Jewish. However, “I’m concerned about this bill’s unintended consequence—the very real potential for creating a vicious cycle of aggressive and tendentious claims against universities to force schools into settlements so as to garner steep legal fees … regardless of the merit or severity of a case.”

“We are taking a meat cleaver to a problem that needs a solution that is more nuanced and more thought out,” he added.

Steven Bloom, assistant vice president of government relations at ACE, believes the bill would only create an ineffective and costly litigation process that wouldn’t bolster Title VI or keep students safe.

“All you need to do is look at the recent Office for Civil Rights investigations launched after Oct. 7, some of which have been resolved with remediation agreements,” Bloom said. “That was a pretty swift process.”

But the bill’s co-sponsor Representative Nicole Malliotakis, a Republican from New York, dug in her heels. “It’s time that these universities learn that their inaction has consequences,” she said.

Protecting American Students Act

The second contentious bill marked up Tuesday was focused on “consequences” for a particular set of universities—wealthy ones with large endowments. The Protecting American Students Act would add between 10 and 12 new universities to the list of about 45 already paying a tax on their endowments by requiring them to exclude international and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals students from their head counts.

The tax, first enacted by Congress during the Trump administration in 2017, has always been intensely opposed by higher education institutions. Private colleges must pay the 1.4 percent excise tax if they serve at least 500 tuition-paying students and have assets equivalent to at least $500,000 per student. By removing international students from the count, the bill would decrease the number of students counted and increase the proportion of assets per student—effectively raising the tax while subjecting more universities to it.

Republicans cast the bill as another way to combat campus antisemitism, which some claim has been instigated by “outside agitators” such as international students.

Representative Judy Chu, a Democrat from California, described these claims as “xenophobic” and “fear-mongering,” comparing the bill to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and former president Trump’s Muslim travel ban in 2017.

“Instead of protecting victims of hate, this bill would simply blame campus unrest on supposed foreign agitators and use this as an excuse to punish institutions that enroll international students regardless of where they come from,” she said.

Representative Drew Ferguson, a Georgia Republican who co-sponsored the bill, said it was addressing a “basic fairness question” by changing the definition of students in the tax code to match the definition of students eligible for federal financial aid.

“To say that this bill by itself wipes out antisemitism on campuses is a bit shallow,” he acknowledged. “[But] we’re not just pulling something out of thin air. We’re actually [drawing] a line across the Department of Education” to connect policies on both financial aid and the endowment tax.

Republicans also noted in their bill summaries that universities can avoid the tax in two ways: by either admitting more U.S. citizens or spending down their endowments. The committee’s chief of staff estimated the bill would increase federal budget receipts by $273 million between fiscal years 2024 and 2034.

For Bloom at ACE, the bill just makes “a bad policy worse.”

“The money doesn’t do any of the things that the supporters claim it would do, which is enhance access, lower tuition or do something about student indebtedness,” Bloom said. “All it does is … just take money out of the hands of institutions, usually charitable resources, and send it to Washington for any purpose.

“They need these [international] students,” he added. “They add enormous benefits to our campuses, both academically as well as economic growth generated by their presence in the U.S.”



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