Rep. George Miller, the California Democrat who has for decades been a prominent figure in federal higher education policy, said Monday that he would retire from Congress at the end of this year.
Miller, who was first elected to the House in 1974 and has since become one of the top Democrats in Congress, said in a statement  that he looks “forward to one last year in Congress fighting the good fight and then working in new venues on the issues that have inspired me.”
Victor Klatt, a former Republican staff director on the committee who is principal of Penn Hill Group, said that Miller’s departure for Congress leaves “a huge void” of institutional knowledge of education issues on Capitol Hill.
“For probably two decades now, George Miller has been the go-to person on education issues for Democrats,” Klatt said. “He knows how to get things done and has connections that are unmatched on the Democratic side.”
Miller's departure from Congress will be especially noticeable since it comes in the same year that Senator Tom Harkin, the top Democrat on the Senate education committee, will also not seek re-election.
Miller has served on the House education committee since he first came to Congress 39 years ago and has led legislative efforts to overhaul federal student loan programs, most notably ending the bank-based lending program in 2010. He also led the push, as part of the Democratic agenda in 2006, to cut interest rates on student loans and increase the maximum Pell Grant award.
Since 2001 Miller has been the top Democrat on the House education panel, and chaired the committee when Democrats controlled the House from 2007 through 2011. Before Democrats took control of the House in 2007, Miller was the ranking member of the panel opposite the then-Republican chair, Representative John Boehner
“No one would confuse me and George Miller for ideological soul mates,” Boehner, now the Speaker of the House, said in a statement Monday. “But during our years serving together on the Education & the Workforce Committee, we got things done on behalf of the American people thanks in no small part to his dedication and willingness to work for the greater good.”
Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, praised Miller for his strong leadership and “fierce advocacy” of his higher education agenda.
“I loved it when I would hear repeated his statement that ‘if you want to get into a fight with me, you’d better bring your lunch,’ ” she said. “It reveals how passionately he views his work.”
Broad said Miller’s efforts to boost funding for Pell Grants and other student aid programs were among his greatest accomplishments, while citing his “outspoken views on issues around college costs” as a source of disagreement with higher education associations.
“He took points of view sometimes that individual institutions and maybe most of higher education opposed,” she said. “But he called the balls and the strikes the way he saw them. You have to respect the man for his dedication.”
Miller was largely seen as a close ally of consumer advocate groups and associations pushing for more funding for higher education.
“George Miller has been a true champion for college opportunity and affordability, especially his crucial role in making sure that millions of students and families can count on need-based Pell Grants to help afford college,” The Institute for College Access & Success said in a statement. “His departure will leave big shoes to fill.”
Miller has also pushed for tighter regulations on the financial products that students encounter on campus, such as debit cards and checking accounts.
More recently, Miller has spoken out about the working conditions of adjunct faculty.
Still, Miller has not gone as far as some of his progressive peers in criticizing for-profit colleges. Though he has rejected efforts in Congress to block the Education Department’s “gainful employment” regulations on those institutions, he did not sign either of the dueling Democratic letters on the issue last month as a new set of regulations were being negotiated. Still, Miller has sponsored legislation that would restrict the amount of federal money that for-profit colleges could use for marketing expenses.
He has also largely stayed out of the recent tussles over the accreditation of City College of San Francisco, even as other representatives who represent Bay Area districts jumped into the fray, seeking to cut off federal recognition to the college’s accreditor. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a close ally of Miller, spoke at the college last week, criticizing the accreditor, the Accrediting Commision for Community and Junior Colleges, and pledging to make unspecified legislative reforms to the accrediting system.
Miller’s departure from Congress comes after Harkin, the Democrat of Iowa who chairs the Senate education committee, has also announced his decision not to seek re-election this November. It’s not clear who would replace him if Democrats keep control of the Senate.
Miller’s Republican counterpart on the House education panel, Representative John Kline of Minnesota, is also on his second term as chairman. If he wins re-election and Republicans keep control of the House this fall, that would be his last term as chair under current House rules.
Representative Rob Andrews of New Jersey is the second most senior Democrat on the panel, but it is not clear whether he would become the committee’s ranking member or chair following November’s midterm elections.
Miller listed several policies he planned to push in his last year in Congress, including a desire to “make college more affordable through the Higher Education Act,” the massive law governing federal student aid that expires at the end of this year. Lawmakers are in both chambers are holding hearings about reauthorization but it seems unlikely that Congress will pass a new version of the law this year.
With the departure this year of the two top Democrats on the education committee, and other possible shake-ups on the panels, the composition and leadership of the education committees will look markedly different in the next Congress than in previous years. It’s likely that the team of lawmakers in the next Congress could be the ones who pass a full overhaul of the Higher Education Act.
“This is a sea change for education policy makers and for anyone who follows education policy at the federal level,” Klatt said.