Shaping ED After DeVos: The Challenges Biden Could Face in Assembling the Department

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter

President-elect Joe Biden has begun to staff up in preparation for the presidential transfer of power, recently unveiling his agency review team for the Department of Education (ED) that could heavily influence his assembly of the agency. But getting the department in order following current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ tenure could be a daunting task depending on the Senate’s makeup. 

The Senate confirmation process of a president’s cabinet nominees is typically non-controversial, especially for education secretaries. Former secretaries Arne Duncan and Margaret Spellings — nominated by former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush respectively — were confirmed by voice votes and John B. King, Jr. — another Obama appointee — received a bipartisan vote of 49-40 under a Republican-controlled chamber.

Yet DeVos’ high-profile hearing and bitterly divided confirmation process led to a 51-50 confirmation vote, which was only broken by Vice President Mike Pence’s vote, the first time in history a vice president was required to break a tie vote on a cabinet position.

“Once you reset norms, they tend to stay reset,” said Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). “It used to be that confirming the secretary of education was pretty breezy, even if it was one party confirming another. This was low stakes.”

Hess said that following DeVos it could be difficult to get back to a non-controversial and succinct nomination and confirmation process.

“The folks on the hill on both sides have long memories,” Hess said.

While Georgia's runoff Senate elections will determine the makeup of the chamber, Republicans, who are favored to retain a majority rule, might be looking toward other Biden nominees to take the incoming administration to task and allow an ED secretary to advance with little fanfare.

Tamara Hiler, director of education at Third Way, said that Republicans, whether in the majority or minority of the chamber, would not want to best prioritize their political capital in potentially stopping a more prominent Biden nominee.

“It's hard to tell how many of these norms are going to stick for future Congresses or not, but my guess is that for the most part the Education Secretary position is not going to be as high-profile as some of the other cabinet positions that may generate more of that media fanfare,” Hiler said. “I think because DeVos had such a terrible confirmation hearing, that's what really brought it up into the national headlines.”

Regardless of the final majority makeup in Congress, the 2020 results, which shrunk House Democrats’ majority and will leave the Senate chamber with a sliver of either a Republican or Democratic majority, the shrunken divide in power has largely taken sitting members of Congress out of the equation for serving in a Biden administration due to the implications that those vacated seats could have on special elections. 

“There's additional political calculus now that the Biden team is going to have to take into account for any member of Congress who they may remove from Congress with a slim majority to ask them to enter into the administration,” Hiler said. 

When it comes to higher education policy for a Biden administration, there are a number of bipartisan issues that could still see some legislative movement regardless of party makeup, particularly if the new Congress makes progress toward reauthorizing the Higher Education Act (HEA).

“I don't think that calculus changes. I think there's still very much a real opportunity that members of Congress can come together and pass legislation that President Biden could sign, even if Republicans maintain control of the Senate,” Hiler said.

More details from NASFAA on what comes next for an HEA reauthorization.

However, legislative action could be operating at a glacial pace even when there is agreement, especially since Democrats did not see a “blue wave” or gain control of the Senate by a larger majority.

While Biden’s higher education priorities are likely to take shape at the outset of his swearing in, he will need to bolster ED’s labor force in order to get those pledges implemented, particularly when taking into account the downsizing and high turnover among employees at ED.  

Among those hired into a Biden Department of Education, according to Hiler, could be officials from the Obama era, due to their administrative experience and alignment with Biden’s education agenda. The agency’s makeup may also be far more diverse than previous administrations, Hiler noted.

“This is really going to be an opportunity and a time for major representation of those from community colleges, the public college sphere, and also [historically Black colleges and universities] and [minority-serving institutions,” Hiler said. “There's going to be probably an unprecedented amount of representatives from those sectors in ways that we certainly don't see currently from the DeVos administration and that we probably haven't even seen though from other Democratic administrations either.”


Publication Date: 11/18/2020

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