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No Curveballs for Higher Ed

November 3, 2010

WASHINGTON -- Final tallies of exactly how many seats Republicans gained Tuesday in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate are days -- if not weeks -- away (though by early Wednesday morning, the major news networks were projecting gains of more than 60 seats in the House). But anyone who didn’t stay up all night watching election results pour in has woken up to a GOP-led House of Representatives and a Senate guided by a small Democratic majority.

What do the results mean for federal higher education policy and the members of Congress who’ve played key roles in crafting those policies?

Nothing that couldn't have been predicted well before Election Day (or by Inside Higher Ed in an article Tuesday). In the House, Republicans are expected to push for budget cuts and greater oversight of all of higher education, not just for-profit colleges. In the Senate, Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) will continue the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee’s examination of for-profit colleges into next year.

Harkin and Senator Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) have said they plan to introduce legislation in 2011 targeting perceived waste, fraud and abuse in for-profit higher education. The second-ranking Senate Democrat, Durbin had been toying with a run to become his party's leader, but with Senator Harry Reid of Nevada's apparent victory in a tight race over Republican Sharron Angle, a challenge to Reid's leadership position seems unlikely.

With Republicans taking the majority in the House, the former chairman of the chamber's Education and Labor Committee, John Boehner of Ohio, is the presumptive Speaker of the House. He and other Republican leaders in September issued “A Pledge to America,” which offered up the party’s vision for a majority in the House and included a call to reduce non-security discretionary spending to 2008 levels.

For higher education, that could translate into cuts for the rapidly growing Pell Grant program and curtailed appropriations for research agencies including the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. It also could mean a reduction -- if not an outright end -- to the practice of earmarked research grants directed to specific colleges and universities, which some Republican lawmakers have vowed to eliminate.

Boehner has also made clear that the House under his leadership will rely more on the committee process to develop legislation, and the Education and Labor Committee will certainly welcome a few dozen new members in the 112th Congress. There are currently 30 Democratic slots on the panel and 19 for Republicans, and those numbers will -- give or take a few -- flip in the new Congress.

Changing House

Most of the members of the panel who are active on higher education issues, including Representative George Miller (D-Calif.), the current chairman, and Representative John Kline (R-Minn.), the ranking member (and expected Republican chairman of the committee), have won reelection. Democratic members like Robert E. Andrews (N.J.), a strong supporter of for-profit colleges, and Ruben Hinojosa (Texas), chair of the higher education subcommittee, are high enough on the committee’s pecking order that they will probably stay on the panel even as their party’s influence wanes.

There are, though, a few notable changes for the panel that could have been predicted before election night. Representative Michael N. Castle (R-Del.) did not run for reelection after losing the state’s Republican Senate primary to Christine O’Donnell (who lost on Tuesday night). In the committee, Castle, a moderate with a passion for higher education, brokered compromises on the Higher Education Opportunity Act, among other pieces of legislation.

Representative Howard P. (Buck) McKeon (R-Calif.), a member of Education and Labor who was for a few years its senior Republican, took on a leadership position in the Armed Services Committee in 2009 and is expected to become chairman of that panel with Republicans in the majority.

Outside of Education and Labor, the biggest change for higher education is the retirement of Representative David Obey (D-Wis.), who as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee had long advocated for increases in federal student aid and research spending.

Steadier Senate

Several members of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee were up for reelection and appeared to have won their races with relative ease. Among them: Democrat Barbara Mikulski (Md.) and Republicans Richard Burr (N.C.), John McCain (Ariz.) and Tom Coburn (Okla.). Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.) appears to have eked out a victory over Republican challenger Dino Rossi.

Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) lost her party’s primary for her seat to Tea Party candidate Joe Miller, but is running as a write-in candidate. Because she is a write-in, it will probably take at least a few weeks before a definitive winner in the race -- which also includes Democrat Scott McAdams -- can be declared.

In Colorado, Democratic Senator Michael Bennet, who was appointed to the seat after Ken Salazar was chosen as the Obama administration’s secretary of the interior, was narrowly trailing Ken Buck early Wednesday morning in Bennet's quest for a full term. Before heading to Washington, Bennet was superintendent of Denver Public Schools and rumored to be on the short list for education secretary, before President Obama chose Arne Duncan. If he were to win, Bennet would almost certainly play a larger role in the process to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, but would also bolster Harkin’s efforts to rein in for-profit colleges.

Senator Robert Byrd (D-W. Va.), who served on the HELP committee for many years, died earlier this year and was replaced on an interim basis by Carte Goodwin, who did not run for the Senate seat. The Democrat who did pursue the Senate seat, Governor Joe Manchin III, won Tuesday.

It’s unclear whether he’ll be an influential figure in higher education policy, but when Manchin began a one-year term as chair of the National Governors Association this summer, he chose as his key initiative the “Compete to Complete” project aimed at encouraging governors to work to improve college graduation rates in their states.

 

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