From Your Lobbyist: New Year, New Congress
January 4, 2019
Freshmen Sworn in Under Government Shutdown: For the first time in history, a new crop of freshmen in Congress was sworn in on January 3rd during a partial government shutdown––one which may become the longest on record. As Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) again took the reins as Speaker of House of Representatives, now controlled by Democrats, the chamber passed a bill late Thursday night to open every government agency for the rest of the fiscal year, except for the Department of Homeland Security which would receive funding only until early February. Because the House legislation does not contain $5 billion for a border wall, though, the President has vowed not to sign it and returning Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has – at least for now – refused to allow the Senate to consider it.
New Congress, New Committees: Despite 11 closed government agencies, 800,000 employees on furlough or working without pay, and the effects of a government shutdown starting to affect the country, the new Congress is already fast at work and Capitol Hill is anything but a ghost-town. The most diverse class of freshmen yet, hundreds of new members are buzzing around the Hill tweeting photos of their new offices, swearing-ins, and attempts to navigate the underground tunnel. Additionally, over the past few weeks, both chambers have been working to finalize committee assignments and chairs.
Since Republicans retained control of the Senate, there were only a few changes to key committee make-ups. There were no changes on the Senate appropriations committee but on the HELP Committee, Senators Mike Braun (R-IN), Jacky Rosen (D-NV) and Mitt Romney (R-UT) replaced Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT, who retired), Todd Young (R-IN), and Michael Bennet (D-CO). It is worth noting that during his 2012 Presidential campaign, Senator Romney touted the fact that, while governor, Massachusetts state universities provided free tuition to high school students who graduated in the top quarter of their classes. Over in the House, Bobby Scott (D-VA) officially took over on January 4th as Chair of the Education and Labor Committee (previously the Education and the Workforce Committee) and Rep. Susan Davis (D-CA) is expected to chair the Subcommittee on Higher Education. On the appropriations front, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT)––an outspoken and fierce champion for education funding––is slated to lead the Labor HHS-Education Appropriations committee that provides funding for education programs such as the Pell Grants. The House is expected to finalize these assignments by next week.
What to expect? Out the gate, we can expect a multitude of education hearings on the House side, which will have a very different tone and focus under Democratic leadership. The House Education and Labor Committee staff have already indicated there will be at least 10-15 hearings on higher education, including on issues like campus-based aid, affordability and student debt, and accountability. The committee staff has also indicated that oversight of the Department of Education on Public Service Loan Forgiveness implementation, for-profit accountability, and borrower defense/gainful employment rules are likely hearing topics. Additionally, Chairman Scott will reintroduce the Aim Higher Act, which will serve as the basis for negotiations on reauthorizing the Higher Education Act (HEA). On the Senate side, HEA will also be a priority in this session, especially because Chairman Alexander (R-TN) announced he will be retiring at the end of the 116th Congress and will be eager to update the law as part of his education legacy. As mentioned in previous updates, the Senate bill will likely differ from Aim Higher, particularly on the availability of student loans and aid programs. The likely differences between the House and Senate versions of HEA reauthorization present major but perhaps not insurmountable obstacles to the House, the Senate and the White House agreeing to a final bill.
AYA’s Plan: As soon as the new Congress gets settled, AYA will immediately take to the Hill and meet with new members to introduce ourselves and advocate for the issues that we care about. First and foremost, we will be discussing our HEA priorities including alleviating the crushing burden of student debt, making college more affordable, and ensuring the Department of Education is held accountable for protecting student borrowers.