Colleges and the New Congress (Updated)

Democrats expected to push hard for more aid for students -- but unlikely to ease up on higher education accountability.
November 8, 2006

The newly configured Congress that emerged from Tuesday's election is likely to change the landscape for higher education in significant -- but not necessarily predictable -- ways.

Democrats, who captured the House of Representatives and made significant gains in the Senate (control of the Senate remained in doubt early this morning, with key races in Montana and Virginia undecided -- check back for updates), have vowed to aggressively push an agenda that includes helping students and families better afford college, an effort that higher education officials (and of course student groups) very much support. ( Update: Montana was declared for the Democrats mid-day Wednesday, leaving the hotly contested Virginia seat -- which could take weeks to resolve, pending a possible recount -- in the way of clarity over control of the Senate.)

But while Democrats may be likelier than their Republican counterparts to seek to ratchet up spending on student financial aid, it is doubtful that they will be any less inclined than Republicans are to hold colleges accountable on a range of fronts, including the prices they charge students and the quality of the education they deliver. So the outlook for higher education may be a decidedly mixed one, college lobbyists and other observers of Congress and higher education speculated as they awaited the election results Tuesday.

The full impact of the changeover in the House and the Democratic gains in the Senate, which end 12 years of full Republican control of Congress, won't be clear for months. Divided government could result in deadlock, or moderation that results in compromise and some progress.

Among the uncertainties are what effect partial (or more, if the Senate flips) Democratic control will have on the renewal of the Higher Education Act, which has languished in Congress; whether the power shift will leave the work of Margaret Spellings's Commission on the Future of Higher Education dead in the water; and how much the takeover will change the climate in Congress for for-profit colleges and lenders, both of which have gained from their relationships (forged in significant part through campaign contributions) with Republican lawmakers.

The clearest effect that the changeover in Congress will have is on the leadership of key committees that set higher education policy -- although, even there, some uncertainty remains. Democratic control of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce would drastically change the dynamics of the panel that sets education policy. The committee has gone about its business in decidedly partisan fashion in recent years, and Republican leaders have pushed through many of their legislative priorities -- including legislation to renew the Higher Education Act -- along strictly party lines.

The senior Democrat on the panel, Rep. George Miller of California, would be a forceful advocate for students (and fiercely partisan in his own right) if he replaces Rep. Howard P. (Buck) McKeon as chairman of the Education and the Workforce panel. But news reports Tuesday indicated that Miller might opt instead to become chairman of the House Resources Committee, which oversees environmental issues, hugely important in the Congressman's home state. If Miller were to take the Resources job, the education chairmanship would probably fall to Rep. Dale E. Kildee of Michigan, who is very popular with college officials, and is seen as somewhat more bipartisan than Miller. ( Update: Wednesday, staff members on Capitol Hill said unequivocally that Miller plans to stick with the education committee post.)

The Democratic lawmaker in line to head the panel's higher education subcommittee, known as the Subcommittee on 21st Century Competitiveness, is Rep. Robert Andrews of New Jersey, who is seen as smart and savvy but iconoclastic. He is unusual among Democrats, for instance, in being an advocate for banks and other lenders and for-profit colleges. It is possible, of course, that Democratic leaders might forgo the seniority ladder and tap someone else to lead the postsecondary education panel.

(If the Democrats were to retake the Senate, the parallel education committee there, the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, would be led by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who easily won re-election. That change would have a somewhat less obvious effect than the shift in the House, because in the tradition of the Senate, Kennedy has in recent years worked closely and cooperatively with the panel's Republican chairman, Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming. But as chairman, Kennedy would be expected to feel some pressure from other Democrats -- especially in the House -- to collaborate less and press the party line more aggressively." The potential changeover in the Senate would also sweep Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa back into the chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that sets funding for the Education Department and the National Institutes of Health, displacing Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. That shift would be seen as being largely a wash, because both men strongly support student aid and biomedical research spending.)

The other major shift in the House that is directly relevant to higher education will be in its Appropriations Committee. Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), a staunch advocate for the Pell Grant and other need-based aid, is in line to become chairman of the full committee as well as of the subcommittee that oversees spending for the Education Department and the National Institutes of Health, which he also strongly supports. At the subcommittee level he would supplant Rep. Ralph Regula, an Ohio Republican. ( Update: In the election's aftermath, some college lobbyists were concerned by reports that Democratic leaders might put Rep. John Murtha, a Pennsylvanian who is a major proponent for the Pentagon, in charge of the Appropriations Committee instead of Obey.)

The changeover in the House (and possibly in the Senate) are unlikely to have a major imprint on federal science policy, at least for the moment, as support for efforts to bolster spending on the physical sciences, critical foreign languages and other priorities seen as key to President Bush's American Competitiveness Initiative have been overwhelmingly bipartisan. Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) would presumably replace Rep. Sherwood Boehlert of New York as chairman of the House Science Committee -- the two have worked largely collaboratively.

Whoever leads the individual committees, Democrats in the House will be largely reading from the playbook drafted earlier this year by leaders in their party. In October, the House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi of California, unveiled a six-point agenda that includes the appealing sound bite of "college access for all."

The Democratic plan includes calls for cutting the interest rate on many student loans in half, making permanent a tax deduction for college costs borne by middle income families, and significant increases in the Pell Grant (up to a maximum of $5,800 over several years). Those changes would be hugely expensive, estimated as much as $100 billion in total over five years, and it is not at all clear that the Democratically controlled Congress would be able to find the discretionary funds to pay for them.

House Democrats are also expected to push legislation -- which went nowhere under Republican control -- that would provide financial incentives to colleges if they leave the federal government's guaranteed student loan program and move into the competing direct loan program, which several government reports have shown is cheaper to administer. Although Democrats say the legislation is merely aimed at leveling the playing field between the two programs, the measure, known as the STAR Act, would be likely to renew the partisan warring over the two competing loan programs that had subsided somewhat in recent years.

The other major way in which Democrats would be likely to differ from Republicans on higher education is that they are almost certain to be much more aggressive in terms of "oversight" -- trying to hold the executive branch responsible for its conduct in carrying out federal policy. College lobbyists predict that Democrats might, for instance, examine whether the Education Department has usurped Congressional authority by revamping the priorities of the Upward Bound Program through regulation rather than legislation. And Senator Kennedy signaled with a letter to Secretary Spellings last month (and with legislation he plans to propose) that Democrats might explore whether the Education Department has adequately monitored whether lenders are giving inappropriate incentives to colleges to use their products.

Just what the Democrats would do with the most central piece of higher education legislation that is already before Congress -- legislation to renew the Higher Education Act -- is uncertain. The House has already passed its revision of the law that governs student aid and other federal higher education programs, but that legislation was drafted by Republicans with little or no Democratic input. Democrats might start from scratch with entirely new legislation (and possibly hearings) in the 110th Congress or just extend the current law so they can focus on other priorities (like renewal of the No Child Left Behind law, which will be Congress's biggest education focus in the coming year).

The Democratic takeover might also mean an even less welcoming reception in Congress for Spellings's effort to carry out the report of the higher education commission she appointed a year ago. That plan faced an uphill climb even in the Republican-controlled Congress, as lawmakers in both parties have grumbled about what some see as a strategy by the department to try to enact major changes in policy without Congressional involvement. Democrats, however, might be more likely than Republicans to embrace the commission's recommendation that colleges and student groups like most: a call to increase the spending power of the Pell Grant by 70 percent.

But just because lawmakers of both parties may be skeptical of the education secretary's proposals for reforming higher education, academic leaders should not assume that a Congress in which Democrats control at least one chamber will give colleges a pass on the tougher tendencies of the commission's report, particularly the push for more reporting on college prices and more rigorous evidence that institutions are educating their students.

Even as Democratic leaders have trumpeted their plans to increase spending on federal financial aid for students, their call for making college affordable has included a demand that colleges keep their tuitions down.

As one college lobbyist put it Thursday: "Higher education is on notice regardless of which party is in power that there are concerns about costs, concerns about accountability. I don't think that changes."


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