How the Midterms Could Shift Congress’ Higher Ed Leadership

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Managing Editor

The results of tomorrow’s highly anticipated midterm elections will have significant implications for Congress as a whole — as well as its education panels, which could see change in their leadership.

While much of the congressional jockeying will hinge on each chamber’s respective majorities — and changes in seniority — there are already key players that will be well positioned to shape the higher education policymaking agenda for the 118th Congress.

As things stand, control of the Senate will hinge on a few races with razor-thin margins, and Republicans are favored to take the House. But polling doesn’t always accurately project outcomes, and these dynamics are subject to change as results roll in.

During the current congressional term the leadership in both chambers has been helmed by Democrats, with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) serving as chairs of the Senate and House education committees, and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) as ranking members of the respective panels.

Playing Musical Chairs in the Senate

With Burr’s retirement and an opening for Democrats to lead the Appropriations committee due to Sen. Patrick Leahy’s (D-Vt.) retirement, the education committee will likely see new leadership on both sides.

Should Murray move off of the committee, her leadership role would open for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) who would have the most seniority. For Republicans, the decision on the open position could be between Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Bill Cassidy of Lousianna, and could depend on how Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) distributes those roles.

“I think Sen. Cassidy has shown himself to be very interested in higher education, increasing return on investment for students and taxpayers, and has a lot of ideas,” said Lanae Erickson, senior vice president of social policy, education, and politics at Third Way. “But he's only going to be lead on the Republican side if Rand Paul moves [to another committee].”

Paul has expressed interest in leading the Homeland Security committee, but it is unclear whether McConnell, who does not have the closest of relationships with Paul, would be amenable to the move.

Preston Cooper, a senior fellow in higher education policy at the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity (FREOPP), said that the jockeying to lead the Senate education committee on the Republican side could strongly indicate the direction Republicans will take with higher education policy, as Paul and Cassidy come from “different areas” of the party.

“Rand Paul is very much a small government, free market guy. Bill Cassidy is a bit more moderate — he's one of the lead sponsors of the College Transparency Act. That's a big priority of his,” Cooper said. “The Senate leadership race could make some differences in terms of what kind of actions Senate Republicans take on higher education looking forward into the next Congress.”

Amid this shuffling, though, Erickson does not have high hopes for bipartisan action.

“In either of those circumstances, I just don't see a ton of opportunity for bipartisan progress,” Erickson said. “Sanders has his own approach to higher education, but it's not one that anyone in the Republican Party — as far as I can see  — shares, let alone Rand Paul.”

Cooper largely agreed with that assessment.

“Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul are about as far apart as you can get in the Senate,” Cooper said. “I would hope that there might be some potential areas for bipartisan agreement. … There's bipartisan skepticism too, of course, but I would hope that at least the Democratic and Republican leaders can put their differences aside on a few issues.”

Both analysts and senators themselves have predicted a tight race for Senate control, with the outcome hinging on a handful of races in states like Nevada, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Georgia.

“Either way, it's going to be an extremely slim majority,” Erickson said. “Meaning in order to get anything done, it is going to have to be substantially bipartisan in a way we haven't really seen the higher education debate to be in the past two years.”

Shifting House Dynamics

It’s likely that the House education panel’s leadership won’t change — both Scott and Foxx are up for reelection tomorrow, but the races are solidly in their favor. Though Foxx does need to obtain a waiver from Republicans in order to lead the panel due to party term limits, Erickson said the former chair shouldn’t have much trouble obtaining the permission.

“Crazier things have happened,” Erickson said. “There’s not that many people within the Republican party who prioritize higher education as their top issue.”

Foxx also put forward her own student loan reform package, which is a signal for the direction House Republicans may take with regard to higher education policy.

NASFAA Analysis: Responsible Education Assistance Through Loan (REAL) Reforms Act

Similarly, Scott introduced a plan from House Democrats that would seek to lower the cost of higher education and served as a complement to the administration’s debt cancellation announcement in order to tie the one-time forgiveness to long-term reform.

NASFAA Analysis: Lowering Obstacles to Achievement Now (LOAN) Act

Policymaking Preview

As with previous sessions, it is unclear whether higher education will make it to the forefront of the next Congress’ policymaking agenda, but Kevin Miller, associate director for higher education policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said  student loan debt will likely garner attention.

“Regardless of exactly what the composition of Congress looks like, I think recent actions by the administration — so the student loan forgiveness, as well as developments on income-driven repayment — have really brought student aid and student debt to the forefront,” Miller said. “We've seen that people on both sides of the aisle are interested in addressing some of the systemic problems in higher education.”

Should Republicans capture control of one of the chambers, Cooper said they will likely turn to conducting oversight on the administration's regulatory agenda, hold hearings on those actions, and scrutinize what the exact limits of executive authority are in terms of implementing these changes.

“One thing we're probably going to see a lot of is a lot more congressional attention to the Biden administration's spending by executive fiat, by the Education Department, so not only the student loan forgiveness announcements, but the various other regulations and executive actions that have been issued over the course of the Biden administration,” Cooper said, referencing the administration’s regulatory agenda to implement new rules on borrower defense, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program and income-driven repayment (IDR) waivers, along with the administration’s new IDR plan.

Erickson said she’s convinced House Republicans will immediately turn to conducting oversight on Biden’s student debt relief actions and further scrutinize the legal rationale used to carry out the debt cancellation plans.

“If the debt cancellation hasn't been struck down yet, we will likely also see [House Minority Leader] Kevin McCarthy sue to stop that debt cancellation,” Erikson predicted. “If some of these plaintiffs in a court decision that are moving right now are seen as not having standing, the House of Representatives absolutely has standing, so [House Republicans] may be in a big court battle with the Biden administration over this.”

Cooper said the legal landscape could be difficult to predict, especially because the courts are currently sifting through lawsuits on Biden’s debt relief plans — and likely will still be in the coming months.

“That situation could change a lot by January 3 — we could have a decision from the courts in the case in either direction. We might have had some loans that are already forgiven by that point, in which case it would probably be harder to win a lawsuit that would necessarily reverse that loan cancellation,” Cooper said. “It's kind of hard to put that genie back in the bottle after people's accounts have already been credited. It's certainly possible, but I think a lot depends on how the legal situation right now plays out over the next few months.”

Miller also said lawmakers would likely turn to oversight efforts in a divided government, in which Republicans pick up one or both chambers, but said that there are concrete policy changes being put forward on both sides of the aisle that could see movement.

“It doesn't seem super likely to me that we're going to see big changes in 2023 apart from any more regulatory changes that might come out of the administration,” Miller said. “But I do think that we are in a moment where a lot of policymakers and members of Congress have interesting ideas, even if there's still a pretty big divide between Republicans and Democrats on what their top priorities are and which ideas they are most excited about. I do hope that there's going to be some room to start to bridge the divide and come up with ideas around college affordability and institutional accountability that both sides can agree to.”


Publication Date: 11/7/2022

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