Panel Discusses 2020 Election’s Higher Ed Implications as Results Continue to Pour In

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter 

In the early hours following Election Day much remained up in the air, but a group of education experts convened to discuss the initial implications of the returns and how the dynamics of a potentially divided Washington could impact higher education policy. 

At the outset of the discussion, hosted by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the outcomes for the presidential election and Senate remained unclear, while the House was projected to remain in control of Democrats, leading panelists to predict some impending form of a divided government. Due to the Senate majority being an increasingly narrow split in party control, experts anticipate action related to higher education policy to come directly from the White House. 

Lanae Erickson, senior vice president for the social policy and politics program at Third Way, anticipates that should former Vice President Joe Biden win the White House,  a significant amount of his administration’s higher education policy will stem from executive action.

“I think there are a ton of things that a Joe Biden administration is going to want to undo that Betsy DeVos did, particularly towards for-profits, and they're going to be aggressive in doing that, in particular because they probably aren't going to have a huge legislative agenda in the first Congress, given that there will likely be divided control,” Erickson said.

Since Senate Democrats will not make a significant gain in the chamber, it is also increasingly likely that campaign proposals on debt forgiveness and college affordability will have to be largely scaled back in a potential Biden administration.

“They're not going to do a big debt forgiveness package or fight about how left they should go on a reconciliation bill if Democrats don't have the Senate,” Erickson said. “In some ways, it just really takes the air out of the debates around free college and debt relief and all those things because we now have a place where we have to be bipartisan, and I don't think anyone in the Republican Party is asking, ‘How much blanket debt forgiveness should we do?’”

The initial takeaways from the results indicate that a number of proposals will need to be addressed in some sort of bipartisan manner, setting up the congressional lame duck period to have a similar dynamic to the upcoming 117th Congress. 

Since there might not be a very dramatic change in the makeup of the House and the Senate, Jason Delisle, a resident fellow at AEI, said that dynamic could spur some sort of action on stimulus talks related to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“We're looking down on the possibility here of everything kind of being the same in terms of the way that the government is divided up,” Delisle said. “Then maybe [congressional leaders] realize ... we might as well compromise now and figure something out now before waiting until inauguration.”

The experts offered additional speculation on the fallout of the Senate dynamics and what that means for leadership of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, where Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) is retiring. According to Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at AEI, depending on party control, either current Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-Wash.) or Rand Paul (R-Ky.) could seek out the gavel.

While the panel cautioned that results could still have significant implications for education policy, one dynamic to look out for is the prospect of Senate confirmation fights.

“When I look at the list of ... things that Biden and Harris are going to do on day one, I also remember that they don't have any staff yet,” Erickson said. “Usually what happens is you don't want to hire a lot of your higher level folks until the Senate-confirmed folks get through. If they have to get confirmed through a Republican Senate, that is not going to be a short and easy process.” 

Erickson cautioned that should a Biden administration take office, overhauling the Department of Education (ED) could be a monthslong process.

“The logistics of actually getting people in, staffing up, getting your regulatory systems running, it's going to take longer than any of the Democrats want,” Erickson said. “It's not as if Joe Biden can just walk in and sign an executive order and it's done. A lot of these things are going to take a regulatory process that takes staff, and we have to get that staff confirmed first.”

Following the contentious confirmation battle over DeVos’ nomination, it’s hard to envision a new secretary having a smooth transition in a narrowly-divided Senate.

“If you can't kind of get the ducks in line, because Republicans hold the Senate ... and they're inclined to move slow, you could imagine a good chunk of the first 100 days suddenly being a fierce back-and-forth over cabinet appointees,” Hess said. 

However, should the pandemic continue to require a robust congressional response, Hess said the confirmation process could be sped up.

“Maybe all these guys on both sides say, ‘Look, we're in the middle of a pandemic. This doesn't do either of us any good,’” Hess said. “Maybe suddenly there's a forcing mechanism towards something that looks very different from what we've seen the last four years.”

 

Publication Date: 11/5/2020


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