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Can Congress block college ratings?

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

One reason the Education Department is planning to rate colleges on affordability, quality and value: It's something the department can do without Congress.

Well, mostly. Rating colleges, along with everything else the Education Department does, needs one thing from Congress: money.

Tod Massa, who runs the state higher education data system in Virginia and has advised the Education Department on ratings, writes on his blog today that he's heard Congress could try to block the department from spending any money on the rating system. He describes a phone call with a Congressional staffer:

During the course of the discussion I learned there was a proposed budget amendment to prevent the department from spending any money on PIRS. This is a reaction to Duncan's commitment last month to continue the project, even if Congress does not provided the $10 million requested for PIRS.

Stopping federal college ratings through the appropriations process — at least in the near future — would require an outbreak of Congressional comity and functionality unparalleled in recent years. For this to work, Congress would not only have to agree on the amendment but would need to pass a measure funding the Education Department by the start of the new fiscal year, Oct. 1.

A much more likely outcome is a series of continuing resolutions that sustain the spending status quo and allow the rating system to proceed.

But if this amendment gets any momentum, it will raise an interesting question: Will anyone in Congress stand up for the administration's college ratings plan? Sen. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who leads the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, is on record as a skeptic, and House Democrats haven't shown much interest in the issue in the series of hearings they've held on the Higher Education Act.