Washington Watch: A change of course on Capitol Hill

Walter Bumphus (right), president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges, visits with Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Virginia) in September to discuss community college issues and the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Scott is expected to chair the House Education and the Workforce Committee when the new Congress convenes next year. (Photo: House Education and the Workforce Committee, Democratic staff)

Although all election results are not yet final, the continued Republican control of the U.S. Senate and the Democrats’ securing a majority in the House portends significant shifts in higher education policymaking in Washington, D.C.

In the House, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Virginia) is expected to become chair of the Committee on Education and the Workforce. Scott’s long service on the committee has reflected a particular emphasis on an active federal role in higher education, as well as strong support for minority-serving institutions.

Earlier this year, Scott introduced the Aim Higher Act, far-reaching legislation to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA) that has many features — including a version of America’s College Promise — that the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) strongly supports. Scott’s ascension to the chair of the committee also means that the PROSPER Act, authored by current committee chair Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina), is dead.

Scott and other committee Democrats will likely subject the U.S. Education Department’s (ED) regulatory policies to tough scrutiny, particularly concerning for-profit colleges, public service loan forgiveness, Title IX and general program administration. However, oversight is not tantamount to control, and much of ED’s ongoing regulatory agenda will not necessarily be directly affected by any possible hearings or other oversight activities.

What to expect from both chambers

The larger question of whether next year’s House and Senate can agree on a measure to reauthorize HEA, particularly when so little was accomplished in this area in the current Congress, remains unclear.  It also seems likely that the next Congress will not be very productive, given the looming presidential election, divided government and other factors.

Nevertheless, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, will likely push hard for an HEA bill, with added urgency because his term as chair ends in 2020.

On the funding front, Democrats will want to increase investments in a variety of high priority areas.  The expected incoming chair of the key Labor-HHS-ED appropriations subcommittee, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut), is a strong community college supporter and, in particular, has emphasized her support for reinstating a program similar to the expired Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College to Career Training program. The outgoing subcommittee chairman, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), has offered strong support to Pell Grants, TRIO and other programs.

However, the exact amount of money overall for domestic appropriations will need to be settled next year in negotiations between Congress and the White House. The current statutory cap on appropriations would likely lead to substantial cuts to programs of interest to AACC members.

The new Congress will make formal committee and subcommittee assignments early in 2019.

About the Author

David Baime
is senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges.