With Lame Duck Session Now in Sight, Here Are 3 Things to Watch

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter 

Following the presidential election there will still be a little over a month of the legislative calendar for the current administration and Congress to work through before newly elected candidates are sworn into office for their full terms — and during this wrap-up session, Election Day fallout could spur a flurry of activity related to higher education.

FAFSA Simplification

With the impending retirement of Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), there will likely be an effort on his part to complete work on FAFSA simplification — especially since a rewrite of the Higher Education Act this Congress proved elusive.

“It would make much more sense and be much easier if we could pass this bill, removing the 53 additional questions and let both the FUTURE Act and this legislation be implemented at the same time,” Alexander said in a September hearing.

Alexander also touted the issue on an episode of “Off The Cuff.”

NASFAA supported the bipartisan FAFSA Simplification Act bill introduced by Chairman Alexander and Senator Doug Jones (D-AL) last October.

NASFAA also recently commissioned a 10-paper series exploring ways to make the FAFSA — and the overall federal student aid process — more efficient and streamlined for applicants and their families.

Additional Pandemic-Related Relief 

Since the implementation of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, congressional negotiators have been operating at sometimes quixotic and glacial pace in developing a new agreement to provide additional aid related to combating the pandemic.

However, the monthslong slog of back-and-forth negotiations for additional coronavirus relief between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, while still narrowing, did not come to fruition before election day.

There is still a significant gap in terms of what both sides of the aisle agree should be included in another package.

Democrats in October passed a revised version of their Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, which set aside $208 billion for a State Fiscal Stabilization Fund, 13% of which (or $27 billion) must go to public institutions of higher education and will be distributed by governors. Another $11.9 billion will go directly to institutions, including $3.5 billion for minority-serving institutions, $7 billion for private nonprofit institutions, and $1.4 billion for public and nonprofit institutions with unmet need, including those that operate entirely online.

Republicans have taken a more targeted approach, but in July, following House Democrats’ original debut of the HEROES Act in May, unveiled the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection, and Schools (HEALS) Act — which would provide an Education Stabilization Fund with $105 billion for programs housed under the Department of Education (ED). Just over $29 billion would be directed to the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF)to provide grants directly to institutions of higher education, based largely on the enrollment of full-time equivalent Pell Grant recipients.

However, in September Senate Republicans were unable to advance a slimmed down, Republican-crafted coronavirus aid package.

Fallout from the election will likely have a significant impact on the scope, shape, and timeline for additional aid.

The higher education community, including NASFAA, sent a letter to Congressional leadership requesting that any supplemental funding bill include at least $120 billion for higher education in order to partially mitigate the challenges that students and institutions are facing amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Averting a Government Shutdown 

Depending on the outcome of the election, it is possible that Congress will neither tackle FAFSA simplification nor administer additional relief related to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic — but in order to stave off a government shutdown, they’ll need to approve some sort of spending measure. 

President Donald Trump enacted a continuing resolution (CR) at the start of the current fiscal year, funding federal agencies and programs run by ED through December 11. In order to prevent a government shutdown, Congress must by December 11 come up with either another short-term spending bill or a massive package to fund the government throughout fiscal year 2021, before beginning the next budget cycle.

This bill, which could be the final act of this Congress, could get a number of other policy proposals attached to it. Be sure to stay tuned to Today’s News as NASFAA highlights key developments from the year end session.


Publication Date: 11/3/2020

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