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The midterm elections and higher ed: What you need to know

Ken Salomon October 27, 2014

In the days leading up to a national election, it can be challenging to navigate the waves of analysis and prognostication that flow forth from inside the Beltway, even when your interests are narrowly focused on a specific issue or industry. With this in mind, we’ve pulled from the midterm morass the following key points for the higher education community, presented here for rapid and easy digestion: 

  • Things are tighter in the Senate than anticipated. While recent polls point to a Republican-controlled Senate, many of the key contested races are within the margin of error and growing closer. Compounding uncertainty is the possibility that the Louisiana and Georgia Senate races may have to be decided by runoffs if no candidate receives 50% of the vote when all the November 4 ballots have been counted. The Louisiana runoff is slated for December 6, but the Georgia runoff would not be held until January 6, 2015. That’s three days after the 114th Congress is scheduled to begin. (Elections guru Jim Ellis and I talked at length about that possibility in our recent webinar on the midterm elections.)

  • Regardless of outcome, committee leadership will change. No matter how things shake out on November 4, the congressional education committees are slated for major changes which will affect the upcoming Higher Education Act reauthorization. Chairman Harkin (D-IA) of the Senate education committee and Rep. Miller (D-CA), senior Democrat on the House counterpart announced their retirements early in 2013. Sen. Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Scott (D-VA) are their anticipated committee successors. With no chance of a Democratic House takeover, Scott will be the ranking Democrat with Chairman Kline (R-MN) continuing in his role as chair. However, if the Republicans control the Senate in 2014, Sen. Alexander (R-TN) will chair the Senate education committee.

  • New GOP faces will abound in the House. Newer GOP members of the House committee may look to move from education to other committees in the next Congress, so expect a number of new GOP faces there next year. It will take a while to bring freshmen up to speed on education issues, which can slow the legislative process.

  • GOP control of Congress will recast Reauthorization. A GOP House and Senate will likely focus on streamlining regulations and eliminating overlapping or unnecessary rules. On that point, on October 22, House Majority Leader McCarthy (R-CA) told his GOP colleagues that next year, “I would . . . like to work with the committees to include basic regulatory reforms in any legislation that authorizes or requires new regulations.” Expect state authorization to come under scrutiny, a roll back of gainful employment, and possibly an attack on direct lending too. Among many, other prominent issues that will be addressed during the reauthorization debate include the cost of attendance, outcomes, accreditation, innovation, competency-based education, loan repayment options, and Pell Grant funding.

  • Murray is a dealmaker. A Murray-led Senate education committee would likely be skeptical of the for-profit sector – and oppose undoing Obama-era higher education regulations – but should be willing to move forward on many of the other issues at play.

For additional election news and coverage, keep an eye on Ballot Board, a review of weekly election stats and polls from Thompson Coburn Lobbying & Policy.

Ken Salomon is the chair of Thompson Coburn’s Lobbying and Policy group, and a frequent speaker on the politics of higher education. You can find Ken on LinkedIn, and can reach him at (202) 585-6904 or ksalomon@thompsoncoburn.com.