As conservatives confront the failure of the budget deal to live up to expectations, let's have a look at one cut that does seem to be working as advertised. The federal budget plan up for approval by Congress this week slices international studies programs funded under Title VI of the Higher Education Act by 40 percent. The amount–in the tens of millions–is small by the standards of America's looming fiscal crisis. Yet the lesson taught by this cut is a large one.
Academics are already screaming about the "devastating" nature of the cutback, and the alleged damage to our national security, since the programs in question support the teaching of languages of strategic importance to the United States (like Arabic and Pashto). Yet Title VI programs in international studies have largely failed to channel students fluent in strategic foreign languages into defense and intelligence agencies. Title VI subsidized centers have also been subject to unconscionable abuses: scholarly boycotts expressly designed to prevent students from serving in defense or intelligence agencies; manipulation by donations from Middle Eastern countries; deep political bias in congressionally mandated outreach programs; and an almost complete lack of accountability.
No doubt the sheer scale of our fiscal crisis is going to force some cuts in well-functioning programs with worthy goals. Federally subsidized Title VI programs in international studies, however, are a parade example of government spending gone wrong. This is just the sort of education program president Obama likes to tout as an "investment" in our future. Yet Title VI has been a dysfunctional morass for years.
It's true that in 2008, after a hard-fought five-year battle, Congress finally reformed Title VI so as to increase accountability and curb its notorious abuses. I've seen no evidence of improvement, however, and see little reason for optimism. The academy fought reform tooth and nail, and the Obama administration is unlikely to use its new enforcement tools to rein in a favored constituency.
You can certainly make a good conservative case for zeroing out Title VI altogether. Ordinarily, we don't funnel federal subsidies directly to academic programs. The exception in this case is justified on national security grounds. Title VI grew out of the National Defense Education Act, a Cold War program that helped establish centers of Russian and Chinese Studies that really did help us to defeat Communism. While the Reagan Administration seriously considered zeroing out Title VI when it came into power, it held back, presumably because of the program's proven track record. Yet Kenneth Whitehead, who supervised Title VI during the Reagan years, has described the program's weaknesses. Things only deteriorated after the Reagan years.
Fiscal pressure alone may justify a 40 percent cut in this federal subsidy for higher education, merits of the program aside. In this case, however, the program deserved a cut whether we faced a fiscal crisis or not.
When press reports quote beneficiaries wailing about "devastating" cuts to federal programs with worthy-sounding goals, it's best to keep in mind the example of Title VI. Just about everything that could go wrong with a federal program did go wrong here, even though the program worked well enough for its first decade or so. The massive, well funded, and politically powerful higher education lobby just keeps pushing for more federal subsidies. Overmatched by that lobby, there aren't enough conservative policy wonks to research and expose the many problems that plague federal "investments" in higher education. Be assured, however, the problems are there, as the example of Title VI shows.
I congratulate the Republicans in Congress for forcing a 40 percent cut in Title VI HEA federal subsidies. Ignore the weeping and wailing, and refuse to restore those funds in the next fiscal year. With luck, the current cuts will provide an incentive for the academy to finally do something about the program's perennial failings. If that doesn't happen, Congress should consider additional large cuts. If necessary, a portion of any future cuts could be redirected to a scholarship program run by Defense Language Institute, a far more reliable partner for drawing students of strategic languages into government service.
Congressional Republicans may not yet have cut nearly enough from the budget, but this most excellent cut shows that the Tea Party is right and the entrenched special interests are wrong. Faster please.