New Congress Brings Change To Education Committees

By Jesse O’Connell, Policy and Federal Relations Staff 

With newly-elected members picking rooms, figuring out where to eat, and learning their way around a labyrinthine complex, the start of a new Congress often feels like the start of a semester on a college campus. In place of picking classes, these new freshman members get assigned to committees, which include the committees NASFAA works with regularly: the House Committee on Education and the Workforce and the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP). As advocates for student aid policy, financial aid administrators work closely with these two committees to provide necessary expertise and insight- particularly in light of the ongoing reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

As a result of the November elections, the education landscape of the 114th Congress is vastly changed due to a series of retirements and election losses. 

In the House, gone are long time education stalwarts of the education committee, Rep. George Miller (D-CA, retirement), Rep. Tom Petri (R-WI, retirement) and Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA, retirement), along with Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY, did not run for reelection), Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ, did not run for reelection), Rep. John Tierney (D-MA, lost reelection), Rep. Tim Bishop (D-NY, lost reelection) and Rep. Rob Andrews (D-NJ, resigned).

The Senate will be dealing with the retirement of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) an iconic figure in education policy, having served at the top of the education committee for decades. Additionally, Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) was a member of the HELP committee and did not get reelected.

New Faces

The House Committee on Education and the Workforce had quite a few vacancies to fill as, in addition to the departures mentioned above, both Democrats and Republicans had several members leave the committee for appointments to other committees. 

New Members of the Committee on Education and the Workforce (*indicates freshman): 

Republicans (8): 

  • Dave Brat, VA*
  • Buddy Carter, GA*
  • Mike Bishop, MI*
  • Glenn Grothman, WI*
  • Steve Russell, OK*
  • Carlos Curbelo, FL*
  • Elise Stefanik, NY*
  • Rick Allen, GA*

Democrats (4):

  • Hakeem Jeffries, NY 
  • Katherine Clark, MA 
  • Alma Adams, NC 
  • Mark DeSaulnier, CA* 

There was less change on the Senate HELP Committee as the process by which the party gaining/losing seats in the chamber also gains/loses committee seats meant that the Democrats didn’t get to replace the departures of Sens. Harkin and Hagan, while the Republicans got to add two members of their own.

New Members of the Senate HELP Committee (*indicates freshman): 

Republicans (2):

  • Susan Collins, ME
  • Bill Cassidy, LA*

 Leadership changes 

After requesting and being granted a waiver to remain as chairman of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, Rep. John Kline (R-MN) returns in his familiar leadership role. Changes abound, however, in the other three committee leadership roles.

Having served as ranking member in the previous Congress, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) will ascend to HELP Committee chairman. The former Secretary of Education and Governor made waves in financial aid circles in 2014 with the release, along with Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), of a piece of draft legislation called the Financial Aid Simplification and Transparency (FAST) Act, which was officially introduced before the Senate just yesterday. A proposal for radical simplification of the FAFSA, it would reduce the form to two questions: family size and adjusted gross income. After gathering feedback from the community and making some adjustments, the FAST Act will be officially introduced early in the 114th Congress. Senator Alexander has also proposed allowing administrative authority to limit student loan borrowing, early notification of Pell Grant eligibility, instituting the use of prior-prior year (PPY) income data on the FAFSA, and worked to reduce administrative burden.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) becomes ranking member on the Democratic side. Viewed as a champion of students and education programs, Murray has worked recently to restore the ability-to-benefit provisions to the Pell Grant Program and expressed concerns about student debt and student borrowing.

Her counterpart in the House will be Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), the new ranking member of the Committee on Education and the Workforce. Described as favoring data-driven decision-making, Scott has focused much of his efforts in recent years on juvenile justice as a member of the Judiciary Committee. Well regarded by his colleagues, Scott is expected to focus initially on early-education initiatives.

Predictions for 2015

While it is too soon to accurately predict the course of the next year and the full term of the 114th Congress, we can make some educated guesses about what the immediate future holds for Congress and higher education policy.

  1. The 114th Congress will accomplish more than the 113th. This is not a particularly high bar to clear, as the 113th Congress was the second-least productive in history (by number of laws passed), with only a late flurry of activity ensuring that it passed the equally gridlocked 112th Congress. With Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell talking about a return to regular order and Republicans controlling of both chambers, we should see at least a minor uptick in legislating in the nation’s capitol. 
  2. Higher Education Act reauthorization is unlikely. Despite encouraging forward progress throughout 2014, including the passage of several bills in the House and the release of a comprehensive Democrat draft in the Senate, there remains much work to be done before we can expect reauthorization to occur. Those that follow federal education policy believe that Congress will first turn to the work of reauthorizing No Child Left Behind, the bill that governs federal policy on elementary and secondary education. There simply may not be enough time in 2015 to accomplish that task AND work to complete reauthorization of the higher education bill. 
  3. There will be a substantive bipartisan bill related to simplifying the financial aid process. This is a bit of a cheat, as the FAST Act was introduced yesterday afternoon by the 114th Congress, but it still serves as a prediction of a larger and ongoing trend: the focus on simplifying the aid process. NASFAA is currently working on a Gates Foundation RADD project related to simplification and there is broad bipartisan interest in this goal. 
  4. The fight for full funding for education programs will get harder. With Republicans controlling both chambers of Congress, they have made clear their intentions to hold down government spending. Previous iterations of Republican budget proposals can only be described as austere, and would significantly curtail benefits for students and families in the student aid programs. While the budget process is complicated and impossible to fully predict, funding fights are likely to consume much of the next year, with the possibility of another government shutdown looming in late 2015. 


Publication Date: 1/8/2015

David S | 1/8/2015 9:19:01 AM

We've lost a number of really important advocates...Tim Bishop used to be an aid administrator, Rob Andrews knew at least as much (if not more) about some aspects of aid as many aid administrators, and my former Congressman Rush Holt is literally a rocket scientist. Big shoes to fill, and always the fear that they'll be filled by people with frightening agendas.

I think you'll ultimately bat 1.000 on your predictions, Jesse, but there will be members of Congress who will fight you hard on #1, but will make prediction #4 come true real easily. To think that those of us who were doing this back in the 90's didn't even realize at the time we were living in the Golden Age of Financial Aid. With the prevailing belief among many that federal aid is what allows colleges to raise their prices so much - not that I agree at all, but it's getting tougher and tougher to fight that perception - our work is really cut out for us.

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