The most notable outcome of the midterm elections is the change in power in the House of Representatives. The Democrats now make up the majority of that chamber for the first time in eight years, with Democrats currently holding a 35-person majority over Republicans. This change has resulted in a split in congressional power as Republicans not only maintained control of the Senate, but gained several seats, giving them a five- or six-person majority over Senate Democrats.
What Will Happen in Congress?
Many new lawmakers will join the 116th Congress when its next legislative session begins early in the new year. Current lawmakers are now in a lame-duck session—the period of time left in a congressional session following an election and before the next session begins. For lawmakers who did not get re-elected, it marks their last few months in Congress to try and achieve any outstanding legislative goals before leaving office.
Historically, lame-duck sessions have often been periods of inactivity as returning lawmakers hold new legislation for the next Congress, and exiting lawmakers make plans to return to life outside of Congress.
This year, however, there are a number of significant items left for Congress to address before adjourning for the winter holidays—namely outstanding appropriations bills that must be passed to avoid triggering a government shutdown. Although legislators passed funding bills for defense, education, labor, and health and human services by the mandated October 1 deadline for the first time in years, there are still a number of outstanding appropriations bills that must be passed.
Those federal agencies that were not funded in the first round of congressional appropriations have been operating at their current funding levels under a continuing resolution that is slated to expire on December 7; some of the outstanding appropriations, particularly funding for the Department of Homeland Security—which may or may not include funding for a border wall—are politically contentious and may involve a great deal of negotiations before lawmakers can reach a compromise.
Another outstanding item of note for Congress to address is the possibility of a tax reform corrections bill. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-TX) unveiled in September three new pieces of tax legislation designed to enhance and expand several provisions of last year’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA). With the change in power in the House, Brady will have to relinquish the chairmanship in the new year, and he may work aggressively to pass further tax legislation before Republicans become the minority party.
Implications for Higher Education
The changing House landscape holds potential implications for higher education as power in congressional committees shifts from Republicans to Democrats.
Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), who is slated to assume the role of chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, has already stated that reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) is a top priority for him. Scott indicated that he plans to utilize the Aim Higher legislation that House Democrats introduced in July as a starting point for reauthorization efforts. He has also indicated that he is willing to work with the committee’s Republican colleagues—as well as his Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee counterparts—to develop a piece of legislation with bipartisan support.
The Aim Higher Act calls for simplifying the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA); introduces a number of proposals designed to increase completion; and creates a federal-state partnership that would incentivize states to reinvest in higher education, and in return, requires states to provide students with two years of tuition-free community college. It also calls for greater investment in Pell Grants, reinstatement of the Perkins Loan Program, and funding for student-support services, such as campus-based child care for student parents, housing for homeless and foster youth, and programs to help veterans transition into civilian life.
Control of the education committee will also offer House Democrats a chance for greater oversight of the Department of Education. Many in the party have been critical of ED’s handling of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, changes to the Office of Civil Rights, and tweaks to gainful employment and borrower defense to repayment regulations under Secretary Betsy DeVos, and will likely use their new control in the House to demand more thorough rationales for ED policy changes going forward.
A draft of the HEA reauthorization legislation from Senate HELP leadership of either party has not yet been produced, but both parties released policy position papers earlier this year outlining their separate approaches to reauthorization.
The Republican white paper put a very strong emphasis on setting standards at the program level, including: (1) moving from a cohort default rate system to a loan repayment rate system, in which an institution’s eligibility for Title IV funds would be based on the percentage of students who fail to pay down at least $1 of their principal loan balance within three years; (2) creating a loan repayment rate calculated separately for each program offered by the institution; and (3) creating a new cohort repayment rate that would require colleges to pay part of the difference to the federal government for cohorts that had a repayment rate below 20 percent for borrowers five years out of graduation.
The Senate Democrats released a much shorter policy paper and placed an emphasis on institutional accountability. The paper stated, “The HEA reauthorization must include increased accountability standards for universities and postsecondary education programs … and hold all schools accountable for how they are performing and serving all students when they receive significant taxpayer subsidies.” The upcoming Congress will be Sen. Lamar Alexander’s (R-TN) last one as chairman of the HELP committee due to Republican party leadership term limits, providing him additional incentive to pass HEA legislation while he can still significantly influence it.
Shifting leadership in the House Ways and Means Committee could also hold some potential change for higher education. While last year’s TCJA contained several provisions with negative impacts on higher education institutions, the ways and means committee will now be led by Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA). Neal has long been a supporter of higher education and could potentially use a TCJA corrections bill to mitigate some of the more damaging provisions of the original legislation.
Ultimately, only time will tell what changes the new Congress will bring. The NACUBO federal affairs team is actively preparing new advocacy efforts for the upcoming Congress and creating new messaging materials to help business officers advocate for higher education in their own communities.
NACUBO CONTACT Megan Schneider, assistant director of federal affairs