What a Democratic-controlled Congress could mean for higher ed

Democrats secured control in Congress after winning dual Senate runoff races in Georgia this week. Although the margin of their advantage is slim, it has some progressives hopeful that the majorities, along with the Biden administration, could deliver on postsecondary policies they favor.

However, Democrats’ tenuous reign in Congress means they will need to work across the aisle to pursue significant policy change. And it may doom higher education proposals unpalatable to some moderates and conservatives, such as free college.

Still, they will head education committees in both chambers, giving them more sway, policy experts say. And it only takes a simple majority in the Senate to pass certain spending-related measures; a coronavirus relief bill, which the sector has desperately sought, would qualify. 

“Democrats set the tone, they will define the agenda,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of government relations for the American Council on Education. “But they won’t be able to guarantee everything happens.”

What’s first?

More coronavirus aid will surely be the first concern for President-elect Joe Biden and Democrats as the new Congress gets underway. 

Stalled funding negotiations drew deep ire from higher ed leaders. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act was approved in March, which gave colleges about $14 billion. The U.S. saw no additional relief funding until late 2020, when after a high-profile political battle Congress agreed on a $900 billion package. The legislation was momentarily imperiled when President Donald Trump refused to sign it, though he ultimately did so

It gave institutions $23 billion, a far cry from the $120 billion ACE deemed the minimum. Absent from it, however, was assistance for local and state governments, a Democratic priority that was taken off the table as lawmakers haggled. 


“Democrats set the tone, they will define the agenda. But they won’t be able to guarantee everything happens.”

Terry Hartle

Senior vice president of government relations, American Council on Education.


This omission was viewed as particularly damaging for public colleges, which lean heavily on state support and are bracing for extreme budget cuts in light of the economic fallout from the pandemic, said Wesley Whistle, senior adviser for education policy and strategy at left-aligned think tank New America. For instance, Hawaii’s governor recently announced he aimed to scale back the University of Hawaii’s two-year budget by $78 million, amounting to a 15% reduction across all its campuses. 

The Senate typically needs 60 members to pass a bill. However, it can bypass this requirement for spending measures — which could include a relief bill with state aid attached — in a process known as reconciliation. This type of legislation would be immune to filibustering, which could hamper it, and only needs 51 Senators to approve it. 

Many Republican lawmakers have been reluctant to endorse aid to local and state governments, claiming it is a waste of taxpayer dollars, said Tom Harnisch, vice president for government relations at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. He is optimistic that Democratic control of Congress would make it easier to pass more relief, and said SHEEO would continue to advocate for it. 

New agenda-setters

Democratic control of the Senate also gives Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wa., the top spot on its health and education committee and, therefore, agenda-setting power. Murray is notably a longtime advocate of college affordability, said Kim Cook, executive director of the National College Attainment Network, a group that works to close equity gaps. Murray was also key in helping to pare back the Free Application for Federal Student Aid through a much-lauded provision of the recent federal government spending bill, which also expanded access to the federal Pell Grant. 

An aide for Murray did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

The Senate will need to confirm Biden’s nominees to the U.S. Department of Education, a process that will likely prove easier under Democratic control than had the GOP led the chamber. The president-elect already named his choice for Education Secretary, Miguel Cardona, Connecticut’s public schools chief. Along with Cardona, the Senate will also confirm undersecretary appointees, who would have considerable influence shaping the department’s higher ed policy. 

“If the administration wanted to, it could pursue potentially controversial or provocative personalities,” said Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Appointing progressives could help appease the party’s more left-leaning wing, as Biden and the new Senate Majority Leader, Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., will also be pressured to do, he said.

With the majorities cemented, Democratic lawmakers such as Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren will demand their party seek progressive policies, said ACE’s Hartle. But he predicted they will focus on jumpstarting the economy before the 2022 midterm elections.

The new political environment may cause ACE to “change its calculus,” on what it will ask of lawmakers, Hartle said. But it will continue to press for more coronavirus relief money and support for historically Black colleges. It will also continue to urge Congress and the administration to double the Pell Grant, which Cook said is also NCAN’s next big campaign. Biden has also pledged to double Pell.

Democrats are restricted in their influence, however. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, as head of the Senate, would likely need to serve as the tie-breaker in some votes. In the House, Democrats lost seats in the recent election, thinning their margin.

And the reconciliation process applies only to budgetary matters, meaning lawmakers couldn’t use it to push through large, education-specific proposals. Tuition-free college as Biden has envisioned it — with two-year colleges having no cost, and public four-year schools free for families earning up to $125,000 — will likely never come to fruition, experts said. 

Outsiders have raised the idea of altering legislative rules to enable more sweeping change, namely by nixing the filibuster, but this was shot down by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a longtime centrist whose vote will be influential in the new Congress. He has said he would not vote to eliminate the stall tactic. 

Leave a Comment