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Senator Rand Paul

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Could Rand Paul, who once advocated eliminating the Education Department, really become the Senate’s top voice on higher education?

It’s not the most likely outcome in the jockeying expected before the end of the year or at the beginning of next year over who will replace retiring senator Lamar Alexander as the top Republican on the Senate’s education committee.

But it’s also a distinct possibility depending on how a scandal involving another senator plays out, and higher education lobbyists and policy experts are privately concerned.

Eliminating the Education Department, as Paul, a Republican senator from Kentucky, advocated in his 2016 presidential campaign, likely won’t happen, particularly during the Biden administration.

But if Paul, who has a Libertarian belief that the federal government should play a minimal role in people’s lives, were to be the top Republican on the education committee, “it would raise concerns about what else he could do to undermine the value and work of the department,” said one lobbyist, who asked not be named in order to speak freely.

And should Republicans win even one of two runoff Senate races in Georgia on Jan. 5 to keep control of the body, Paul or whoever is selected by Republican leaders would chair the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. They would be able to set the agenda on discussions over higher education issues for at least the next two years.

But more likely, yet hardly for certain, is that Senator Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, will succeed Alexander, said lobbyists and policy experts like Tamara Hiler, education policy director at the centrist policy organization Third Way.

Burr is next highest to Alexander in seniority on the committee. His office declined comment. But Politico, quoting two people familiar with his thinking, said the senator would be interested in the position but hasn’t made up his mind.

But whether he’s selected, said Hiler and others, will come down to if Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republican leaders will be OK with letting Burr be the top Republican on a committee again, and its chairman should Republicans keep control of the Senate.

Burr agreed in May to resign his powerful position as chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, amid a Federal Bureau of Investigation probe into whether he used inside information he received as a senator in deciding to dump investments before the coronavirus pandemic sent the stock market plummeting.

As a second lobbyist, speaking on the condition of anonymity, put it, much will depend on whether McConnell believes it’s OK to let Burr “out of the penalty box.”

If not, Paul would be the next in line, based on seniority, to be the education committee’s top Republican, and possibly chairman.

The door would be open for Paul to replace Alexander, as well, if Burr chooses to return to his old position on the intelligence committee.

However, a number of scenarios could play out, which could leave Paul the top Republican on either the Senate education or small business committees. Moderate Republican Susan Collins, of Maine, could instead replace Alexander.

Paul’s office also declined comment. But Paul, a vocal critic of the Affordable Care Act, could be interested in being the Republicans’ point person on the HELP Committee because it is also the prime committee on health-care policy.

Regardless of how the jumble of possibilities turns out, lobbyists said one thing is clear. Whoever succeeds Alexander will not have the same expertise and interest in higher education policy as the former president of the University of Tennessee. That could make higher education a lesser priority on a committee dealing with health-care issues amid a pandemic, as well as the potential striking down of the Affordable Care Act by the Supreme Court.

“As a former public university president, secretary of education and governor, Chairman Alexander brings unique experience and interests in higher ed to his role,” Craig Lindwarm, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities’ vice president for governmental affairs, said in an interview. “Regardless of who his successor is, it will be an open question whether they are as committed to higher education issues as a committee priority.”

As one lobbyist said, “No one has the background that Lamar Alexander had on education. Alexander wakes up with education on his mind.”

Alexander's spokesman, though, didn't return inquiries.

Slim Record on Higher Education

Where Burr stands on higher education issues is somewhat of a mystery, the lobbyists and policy experts said.

“Burr hasn’t been too engaged on higher ed issues, so it could fall somewhere down as a priority,” said Clare McCann, deputy director for federal higher education policy at the left-of-center think tank New America and a former senior policy adviser at the Education Department during the Obama administration.

“There are a lot of unknowns with Burr,” Hiler said. “On most higher education issues over the last few years, he’s deferred to Alexander.”

Burr, according to research done by Third Way, has sponsored only two higher education bills in recent years. In 2019, he and Senator Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat from Wisconsin, co-sponsored a bill aimed at scammers who obtain Education Department data to robocall student loan borrowers, falsely promising to eliminate their student debt. The bill would have made it a federal crime to access Education Department databases in order to commit fraud or gain commercial advantage or private financial gain.

Burr in 2019 also co-sponsored a bill with conservative Republican senator Ted Cruz, of Texas, that would have created tax write-offs for making cash contributions to scholarship-granting and workforce training organizations.

When the National Collegiate Athletic Association decided last October to allow college athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness, Burr, who played football at Wake Forest University in the 1970s, wrote in a post on Twitter that he planned to propose a bill to make the athletes pay taxes on the value of their scholarships.

“If college athletes are going to make money off their likenesses while in school, their scholarships should be treated like income,” Burr wrote.

“It’s hard to glean any narrative on his full higher ed focus,” Hiler said.

However, some of Alexander’s current education staff on the committee could stick around if Burr becomes its top Republican. The aides have been negotiating for months with the staff of Senator Patty Murray, the committee’s top Democrat, on updating the nation’s main higher education law. Robert Moran, Alexander’s education policy director, left the committee last month to join a lobbying firm, Bose Public Affairs. Moran didn't return emails.

But the remaining staff could preserve momentum for the long-overdue update, which is expected to deal with issues like simplifying the form used to apply for student financial aid and the federal government’s various student loan repayment plans, as well as creating more effective accountability measures for institutions.

But Burr, in negotiating an updated Higher Education Act, “could be less of a believer than Alexander in some of the federal financial aid programs,” McCann said. Another lobbyist noted that Burr is considered a fiscal conservative.

But Paul being the Senate’s top Republican on education policy would be a different situation altogether.

“Burr generally strikes me as a … more conventional conservative. He’s going to be skeptical of any new spending,” said Frederick Hess, director of education policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

“Paul is generally skeptical of federal spending,” Hess said. “Paul is very much of a small-government Libertarian.”

Paul has on a number of occasions gone as far as calling for the elimination of the Education Department, arguing at a 2015 panel discussion at the University of Chicago, for instance, that education should be handled by state and local governments.

Referring to the federal government, he said, “They send rules down that don’t help education. They hinder innovation. I’d cut them out of the loop. I don’t think you’d notice if the whole department were gone tomorrow.”

Likely, that means he’d be opposed to increasing spending on student loans and would seek to shift money away from higher education, McCann said. Even deciding which witnesses will appear at hearings could lead to more battles with Murray, she said.

“To the extent Senator Burr is less interested in higher education [than Alexander], Senator Paul is openly hostile to it,” McCann said.

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