While the margins in each chamber will be finalized in the coming days, this week’s mid-term election results mean that, come January, the United States will have a divided Congressional government. The House of Representatives will be controlled by Democrats and the Senate will continue to be controlled by Republicans.
So, what does this mean for the remainder of 2018 and relevant education issues in the new Congress?
Congress’ main priority now is to keep the federal government open. This is typically a mad scramble at the end of the year, but, in a departure from recent history, this year Congress passed its fiscal year 2019 education spending bill (along with four other spending bills) and got it signed into law before the end of the fiscal year on September 30. While there still could be a fight in Congress over the remaining spending bills, there won’t be substantive education issues to wrangle over.
Also during the lame duck period there will be leadership elections in the House. Democrats will now have to elect a new Speaker of the House for the 116th Congress. Likewise, Republicans will elect a minority leader. (Note: each party votes in their caucus this year, but the official floor vote occurs next year when the new Congress is in session.) This is important because the Speaker decides who will chair each of the House committees, like the Education and the Workforce Committee.
Finally, the Republican Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization bill, otherwise known as the PROSPER Act, has yet to see a vote in the full House because Republicans couldn’t find the votes to pass it in their own caucus. There were rumors that perhaps PROSPER would be revived in the lame-duck session, but despite Chairwoman Virginia Foxx’s (R-NC) persistence, there is no indication that Republicans will bring PROSPER to the House floor for a vote in November or December. Even if it did, the bill cannot pass the Senate, and thus voting on PROSPER now serves no policy or political advantage. But we do expect both the House and Senate education committees to make HEA a priority in the 116th Congress.
There are numerous implications for education-related issues due to Democrats taking over the House; here we will highlight a few. Note: most of these apply only to the House because Republicans currently control the Senate.
HEA Reauthorization: House Democrats offered their HEA reauthorization bill, the Aim Higher Act, earlier this year, but were not in a position to move it forward. Now they are. It is possible Democrats rework some sections and pass this out of the chamber. The Senate did not publicly release an HEA reauthorization bill, but this Congress will be Sen. Lamar Alexander’s (R-TN) last chance to be chairman, so he has incentive to produce something in the next two years. Due to Senate rules, if he wants a bill to become law, it will need to be bipartisan. Because the House is now controlled by Democrats, any final HEA bill passed in the 116th Congress is likely to be moderate.
Committee Changes: First, the House education committee will get a new name. It will now be referred to as the Committee on Education and Labor, which is what it was called before Republicans changed it in 2011. Second, there will be a new chairman: Rep. Robert “Bobby” Scott (D-VA). Also, Rep. Foxx, the current chair, will probably be the new ranking member. Third, because a few current Republican committee members lost their seats, the composition of the committee will change. At a minimum, there will be an increase of Democratic members, but additional reshuffling of membership on both sides could occur. Finally, there could be membership changes on the Senate education committee but probably not too many. We will find out early next year.
Oversight & Leverage: With their new power, Democrats have vowed to exhibit extraordinary oversight of the U.S. Department of Education (ED). Specifically, Democrats want to focus on policies regarding civil rights laws and what they call an abdication of duty to defend and enforce consumer protections in the higher education space. For example, the House may examine how ED has handled the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program and efforts to reorganize ED. Additionally, Democrats plan to scrutinize the actions of the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau regarding oversight of student loan servicers. Democrats will now have the legal tools to compel testimony and subpoena documents at will.
Now that Democrats control the House, we can expect to see education provisions that favor Democratic priorities included in various other bills, such as spending measures. Doing so gives them leverage to get smaller education-related victories outside of HEA reauthorization. The ability to drive small agenda items via must-pass legislation cannot be overstated, and we will be watching to see how education items are enacted though this method.