The Importance of Congressional Leadership for Higher Education Policy

By Rebecca S. Natow

With the retirement of Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the US Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee will be selecting a new chair for the 117th Congress. This congressional leadership position will help steer the fate of federal higher education policy for years to come.

The next two years in particular will be a critically important time for higher education with the sector desperately needing repair from the public health and economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. Higher education leaders are seeking federal financial support, student advocates are arguing for student loan debt cancellation, and congressional leaders in both the House of Representatives and the Senate will have to make important decisions about the federal government’s role in higher education. Because the Senate HELP Committee handles health as well as education policy, there are concerns that the committee leadership’s time may be consumed by dealing with the ongoing pandemic. Therefore, the committee’s focus may be diverted away from important higher education policy matters, such as student financial aid and the long-overdue reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA).

Congressional leadership positions—including chamber, party, and committee leadership—significantly influence Congress’s higher education policy agenda, and the choice for the new chair of the Senate’s HELP Committee will be critical to upcoming federal action in the sector. In the House of Representatives, the highest-ranking position is the Speaker of the House (often called simply “the Speaker”). The Speaker is responsible for, among other things, presiding over the chamber’s business and recognizing representatives so they may speak on the House floor. The next most influential member of the House is the majority-party leader. The minority party in the House also has a party leader, whose role is to advance the minority party’s policy agenda and appoint minority party members to certain committees.

The leadership structure in the Senate is a bit different from that in the House. The vice president of the United States serves as president of the Senate; however, the vice president votes in the Senate only in the event of a tie. The Senate also has a president pro tempore, who serves as presiding officer of the chamber in the vice president’s absence. In practice, neither the vice president nor the president pro tempore exercises the same level of power in the Senate that the Speaker does in the House. Rather, it is the Senate majority leader who holds powers similar to the Speaker’s, including the power to call matters to the floor. The Senate also has a minority-party leader, just as the House does.

Leadership of Congressional Education Committees

Both chambers of Congress have committees that specifically handle higher education issues. In the Senate, this is the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee. In the current Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, the relevant committee is Education and Labor (it has been called the Education and the Workforce Committee when Republicans controlled the chamber). When a higher education bill is introduced in Congress, it is first sent to the committee responsible for higher education. The chair has the power to decide whether to consider the bill in committee, and if so, the committee may convene hearings to gather further information or issue amendments before voting on whether to move the bill forward to the chamber’s floor.

Examples of these different committee activities are reflected in bills to reauthorize the HEA that were introduced in the House of Representatives in recent years. When Republicans controlled the House in 2017-18, the Education and the Workforce Committee considered and voted to advance the PROSPER Act, a Republican bill to reauthorize the HEA. Democrats on the committee introduced their own bill, the Aim Higher Act, which received no committee action after being introduced. When Democrats took control of the House following the 2018 elections, the Education and Labor Committee introduced, took up in committee, and voted to advance Democrats’ new HEA reauthorization bill, the College Affordability Act.

Although committees that deal specifically with education tend to have the most direct influence over higher education, other congressional committees handle matters that affect higher education as well. This includes both chambers’ Appropriations Committees, which make annual funding decisions regarding the Department of Education and federal programs affecting higher education.

Congressional committee chairs are typically members of the majority party in their chamber, and the majority party is granted more seats than the minority party on the chamber’s committees. The minority-party leader of a congressional committee is called the ranking member. The Speaker of the House appoints members to the House committees and sometimes also appoints committee chairs. Party leaders in the Senate likewise influence committee appointments. In the House of Representatives, the current chair of the Education and Labor committee is Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA), and the current ranking member is Representative Virginia Foxx (R-NC). Leadership of the Senate HELP Committee for the 117th Congress is, however, currently unsettled following current chair Senator Lamar Alexander’s pending retirement.

But none of the Republican senators who may become chair of the HELP Committee has had the extensive experience with higher education than has Senator Alexander, who previously served as secretary of education and as a university president.

This appointment hinges on whether Democrats win both of the Georgia Senate run-off elections taking place on January 5, 2021. If they do so, they will have a slim majority in the chamber, with 50 senators and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote. In such a scenario, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), who has been serving as the Democratic ranking member on the HELP Committee, would in all likelihood chair the committee.

But if Republicans win at least one of the Georgia races, then their party will control the chamber and the HELP Committee leadership in that scenario is less clear. Another Republican would replace Senator Alexander as chair of the committee. Names that have been floated as a possible Republican leader of the HELP Committee include Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), and Senator Susan Collins (R-ME). Senator Burr, the most senior member of the HELP Committee after Alexander, has not been very active on higher education policy matters, although he has generally been critical of a large federal role in education. Senator Paul, who is next in terms of seniority after Burr, holds libertarian views and has openly argued for eliminating the Department of Education. This portends a smaller role of the federal government in higher education should he become chair of the committee (also, Senator Paul is a physician, and his focus as chair of the HELP Committee may turn out to be heavier on health policy than on education). Senator Collins, who is next in the hierarchy after Paul, has advocated for policies that would benefit rural higher education. But none of the Republican senators who may become chair of the HELP Committee has had the extensive experience with higher education than has Senator Alexander, who previously served as secretary of education and as a university president. This, combined with the fact that the HELP Committee will also be dealing with public health policy matters during a global pandemic, means that higher education is likely to receive less attention from the Senate than it has in quite some time.

How Do Congressional Leaders Influence Higher Education Policy?

Through a combination of congressional rules and precedents, congressional leaders have the power to influence Congress’s legislative agenda and federal personnel appointments, which in turn influences higher education and other policy areas. This influence comes from the leaders’ ability to advance or block legislation and nominations, to mobilize support for or opposition to policies, and to draw attention to policy matters.

Advancing or Blocking Legislation and Nominations

A primary way chamber leaders influence policy is through their power to advance legislation and nominations. Bills focused on higher education policy, including the critical reauthorization of the HEA, are assigned to the Education and Labor Committee in the House and to the HELP Committee in the Senate. Presidential nominees to high-ranking executive-branch offices and federal judgeships—which require Senate approval under the Constitution—are referred to the Senate committee with jurisdiction over the office for which they have been nominated. The hearing for the new nominee for US Secretary of Education, Connecticut Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona, will therefore be handled by the HELP Committee, and any nominee for a federal judicial post will be handled by the Senate’s Judiciary Committee. Once a matter is sent to a committee, the committee’s chair has the power to decide whether and when to hold hearings or to conduct a “markup session” on a bill, when committee members debate the bill and propose amendments. Once a bill or nominee is set to go before the full chamber for a vote, it is the chamber leadership that schedules floor votes. In the House of Representatives, the Speaker does this in consultation with other majority party leaders; in the Senate, this power is held by the majority party’s leader.

The power to schedule votes on legislation and (in the Senate) nominees gives much power to chamber leadership. This power was illustrated clearly in 2016 in the Senate’s refusal to vote on the nomination of Judge Merrick Garland for the US Supreme Court following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. Garland was nominated during the presidency of Barack Obama, a Democrat, while the Senate was controlled by Republicans. Led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Senate Republicans refused to hold hearings or vote on Garland’s nomination. Once Donald Trump, a Republican, was elected president, Senate Republicans held hearings for and voted to approve President Trump’s nomination of Justice Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Despite this history with judicial nominees, Biden’s cabinet appointments, including Cardona, will not likely have the same experience: Senator McConnell recently said that Biden’s nominees for cabinet positions will receive a floor vote in the Senate.

Committee leaders also have the power to advance or block items on their committee’s and their chamber’s agendas. For example, in 2019, HELP Committee Chair Senator Lamar Alexander blocked a bill in committee that would have provided temporary funding for minority-serving institutions (MSIs). Inside Higher Education reported that this was an attempt to pressure Democrats to negotiate a larger bill containing several bipartisan higher education policy priorities that had been stymied by the inability of Congress to pass a comprehensive HEA reauthorization. Although this move did not result in the larger legislative deal Alexander was hoping to pass, the bill that was ultimately adopted contained permanent (rather than temporary) MSI funding as well as some measures to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) —a goal Alexander had wanted to accomplish for some time.

Mobilizing Support within Congress

Congressional leaders also are key players in mobilizing support for policies. Party leadership on committees—that is, chairs for the majority party and ranking members for the minority party—often are regarded by their colleagues as experts in the policy areas overseen by their committees. Research I conducted for my forthcoming book on federal higher education policy (in contract with Teachers College Press) found that party leaders on congressional committees are in a unique position to garner support for policies. First, in order to pass both chambers of Congress, a bill often needs at least some bipartisan support. This is in no small part because the filibuster rule in the Senate effectively requires a minimum of 60 votes for most bills to pass. Thus, congressional leaders must typically cultivate support from at least some members of the other political party. My research found that congressional leaders’ willingness to compromise and to work constructively with their counterparts in the other party can facilitate the passage of major legislation. On the other hand, failing to earn support from key congressional leaders can reduce the likelihood that a bill can pass. One interviewee provided the example of Republicans needing the support of Senator Patty Murray, the Democratic ranking member of the HELP Committee, to pass higher education legislation, “because if she’s going to oppose it, then her caucus is going to oppose it. And if her caucus is going to oppose it, then you can go really far down the line and you’re just going to get filibustered.”

Congress members provide to their party’s committee leaders, with the reasoning that chairs and ranking members are “the most knowledgeable on it … [have] done all the hearings, [the leaders] both agreed. Even more so, [their] whole committee agreed.”

The respect Congress members often hold for committee leaders as experts in their policy area can be essential in convincing party members who may otherwise feel lukewarm about a bill. A former congressional staffer who participated in my research said that party members often take cues from their party’s committee leader, particularly if the chair and ranking member both support the bill and the committee has voted to move the bill forward. Speaking specifically about HELP Committee leadership, this interviewee said that “there is a kind of deference” Congress members provide to their party’s committee leaders, with the reasoning that chairs and ranking members are “the most knowledgeable on it … [have] done all the hearings, [the leaders] both agreed. Even more so, [their] whole committee agreed.”

Although Senators Alexander and Murray were not able to achieve this kind of consensus on an HEA reauthorization, their collaborative work and leadership did lead to the bipartisan passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015, which was a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. A different interviewee told me that Senator Murray, who had been new to her ranking member role at the time, was “a good partner” for Senator Alexander in successfully shepherding ESSA through the Senate. If a comprehensive HEA reauthorization is going to be enacted in the next Congress, bipartisan support of HELP Committee leaders (similar to the kind that ESSA had received) will be instrumental for achieving filibuster-proof success in the Senate.

Drawing Attention to Policy Matters

Members of Congress, as public figures and national lawmakers, have a prominent platform that can attract the attention of other policymakers, the media, and the public. Congressional leaders in particular have the power to draw attention to national social problems and to make the argument that their preferred policies are appropriate solutions to those problems.

As recognized leaders in the federal government, chamber and committee leaders can elevate issues on the government’s agenda and make them significant in the eyes of the general public.

Committee leadership can draw attention to chosen policy matters by conducting congressional hearings that are open to the public and higher-profile issues are likely to be covered by the media. For example, when now-retired Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) chaired the HELP Committee, he initiated several hearings to investigate practices by for-profit higher education providers. Committee chairs have the power to initiate hearings, to call and schedule witnesses, and to recognize committee members to question witnesses. The ranking member on behalf of the minority party may also invite and question witnesses. Committee chairs have the power to give opening and concluding statements in hearings, which provides an opportunity to set the tone for the hearing, to have the final word, and to offer purposefully designed pitches for media coverage.

Conducting hearings is not the only way congressional leaders are able to bring attention to policy matters, of course. As recognized leaders in the federal government, chamber and committee leaders can elevate issues on the government’s agenda and make them significant in the eyes of the general public. As one of my interviewees observed, if a prominent member of Congress seeks to draw attention to a matter, that member can be influential in “shaping a public discussion about that issue and about higher education. It’s not a legal, regulatory, or budgetary influence, but it is a behavioral influence that they have.” An example of this is Senator Alexander’s practice of holding up a lengthy FAFSA form to gain attention to how complex the form was and to promote a policy to simplify it. Shortly before Alexander’s retirement from the Senate, FAFSA simplification was passed by Congress.


Congressional leaders stand apart from other policymakers as holding important power that gives them meaningful control over Congress’s agenda. In addition to their ability to advance or block legislation and nominees, to mobilize support for their or their party’s preferred policies, and to bring attention to important policy matters, congressional leaders also influence the hiring of congressional staff, decisions about committee budgets, and the conduct of committee meetings.

Congressional rules regarding leadership greatly favor the majority political party. Chamber leaders, such as the Speaker of the House, are elected by majority vote, and Senate precedent gives that body’s majority-party leader great power over the Senate’s policy and political agenda. Thus, the party that controls a house of Congress benefits not only from having at least a simple majority of voters within the chamber, but also the ability to have party members exercise the unique and significant powers held by congressional leadership. The powers of congressional leaders are particularly important when Congress and the presidency are controlled by different political parties: by refusing to hold hearings on a president’s legislative priorities or nominees for judgeships, congressional leadership can stifle an opposing-party president’s agenda. On the other hand, a congressional majority that is the same party as the president can facilitate the passage of legislation and the confirmation of nominees, sometimes without needing any support from the opposing party.

Congressional leaders in the 117th Congress will help determine how much of President-Elect Biden’s ambitious plans for higher education will be adopted. With prospective federal policies such as student loan cancellation, stimulus funding for higher education, and a long-overdue HEA reauthorization on the short-term horizon, the outcome of the Georgia Senate runoff elections—which will help determine party control of congressional leadership—will have important implications for higher education policy for the next two years and likely many more years to come.


Rebecca S. Natow is a Richard P. Nathan public policy fellow at the Rockefeller Institute of Government and an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy at Hofstra University.