As Congress returns from its August recess this year, there remain some major items that must be addressed before the end of the year - although certainly fewer than last year.
Government Funding and More
Atop Congress’ to-do list will be funding the federal government for the next fiscal year, which begins on October 1.
Unlike past years, the Senate has moved rather expeditiously, and in a bipartisan manner, to pass the majority of the 12 independent spending bills needed to keep the government funded for the next year. In contrast, the House has passed only half of them, but it is expected to take up its versions of the remaining bills during September.
In the best-case scenario, where both the House and the Senate pass all 12 appropriations bills, the two chambers will then need to iron out the differences between the bills in a series of conference committees. This process will not likely occur before the end of the fiscal year, so Congress will need to pass a short-term continuing resolution (a bill that funds the government at the current levels for the period designated in the legislation) that will allow Congress to finish its work.
However, if the funding process is derailed, as it has been often recently, keeping the government funded could get very complicated because of the politics surrounding the mid-term elections (see below for more). Nevertheless, funding the federal government for fiscal year 2019 will be a top priority for all parties involved.
Outside of funding the government, there is only one other major priority for the Republican Party: confirming Judge Brett Kavanaugh to be an Associate Justice on the United States Supreme Court. Hearings were held last week, and a vote is expected sometime in September. There has also been talk of doing a so-called “Tax Reform 2.0” bill, but no legislation has been put forward and it is unlikely to pass both chambers.
Mid-term Elections and the Higher Education Act
This year is a mid-term election year, which means voters will determine who has control of both chambers of Congress. This has implications for higher education legislation in the House and potential reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) next year.
Given the election schedule, Congress has just around 16 working days where both chambers are in session before the elections. There are also just 16 working days between the elections and the end of this Congress. In either case, there is not much time to get things done.
If Republicans keep control of the House, they could bring the PROSPER Act to the House floor for a vote after the election, or it will make a comeback and be a strong template for HEA reauthorization in a Republican-controlled House next year.
If Republicans lose control of the House, it is unlikely that PROSPER sees the floor during the “lame duck” period after the election, and it will not come up during the next Congress. Under this scenario, the Democrats will undoubtedly refine their Aim Higher Act and bring that bill to the floor for a vote in the House.
In either scenario, the Senate is waiting until next Congress to start HEA reauthorization in earnest. Because of the rules of the Senate, HEA will have to be bipartisan, and any proposal will inherently be more moderate than a Republican or Democratic House bill. Whichever party controls the Senate will decide which way the bill leans initially, and whoever controls the House will determine which way the bill, if conferenced, will lean in the end.
Given that members will be in their home states and districts campaigning in October before the election, that would be a good time for you to reach out to your members of Congress and #MakeTheCase for increasing access and affordability of graduate education.