On the latest episode of Policy Outsider, Rockefeller Institute Nathan Fellow Rebecca Natow joins host Alex Morse, to discuss her latest analysis examining the retirement of US Senator and Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chair Lamar Alexander, the role of the HELP Committee is setting congressional agendas and actions in higher education, and the likely choice for the next Senate HELP Committee chair in the Democrat-controlled Senate.


Rebecca Natow, Fellow, Rockefeller Institute of Government

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The Importance of Congressional Leadership for Higher Education Policy

  • Transcript

    Transcript was generated using AI software and may contain errors. 

    Alexander Morse 0:01

    Hi and welcome to this episode of Policy Outsider, the podcast of the Rockefeller Institute of Government. I’m the host, Alex Morse. I want to welcome you all and ask you to join me in saying goodbye to 2020 and hello to the new year. While the past year has been challenging, and challenging barely begins to describe it, we at the Institute are continuing to research public policy and present our findings to help the public and policymakers make sense of what’s happening at the federal, state, and local levels of government. We’re starting off the new year by talking with Rebecca Natow, a Nathan Fellow at the Rockefeller Institute, about her most recent work that examines the importance and influence of congressional leadership, plus what we could expect to happen in higher education policy from the Biden Administration, alongside a Democratic controlled Senate and House of Representatives. Coming up next.

    Alexander Morse 1:15

    Rebecca Natow is a Nathan Fellow at the Rockefeller Institute and assistant professor of specialized programs in education at Hofstra University. Rebecca specializes in educational leadership and policy. We here at the Institute thought it would be great to invite Rebecca to discuss her latest blog, “The Importance of Congressional Leadership for Higher Education Policy,” and to have her offer her insights into the importance of leadership in the education realm at the federal level, and how that might affect downstream. Rebecca, thank you for joining us today.

    Rebecca Natow 1:47

    Thank you so much for having me on.

    Alexander Morse 1:49

    Great. So we know that Joe Biden, a Democrat, will be working with a Democratic majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. But before we jump into what it means for education policy now that the Democrats have control of both the executive branch and the legislature, let’s start with a brief overview on congressional leadership and its structure. How does Congress operate the way it does? And why is it important to understand for policy goals?

    Rebecca Natow 2:16

    Well, to start with the basics, there are two houses of Congress, the Senate and the House of Representatives, and a bill must pass both houses of Congress in order to be sent to the president for signature. There’s also a number of committees in both houses of Congress that are important in particular policy areas, the committee’s focus on particular policy areas in both the House and the Senate. The committee in the Senate that focuses on higher education policy matters is known as the Health Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee and the acronym for that is H.E.L.P. Committee. The corresponding Committee in the House of Representatives is called the Education and Labor Committee. When Republicans have controlled the House that same committee has been called the Education and the Workforce Committee. Each of the congressional committees has a chair who is the majority party’s leader on the committee and also a ranking member who’s the minority party’s leader on the committee. The majority party also holds a majority of seats on each committee, which gives the majority party an advantage on voting for matters to go to the floor of the chamber, because that’s done by majority vote within the committee.

    Alexander Morse 3:27

    I want to just pause right there, a bill is introduced into a committee, it is then voted upon by those committee members, and if it’s passed, it will then go to the floor.

    Rebecca Natow 3:40

    That’s correct. And it’s also important to know that the committee chair can decide what bills to take up in committee and can decide whether or not to hold hearings. That’s another reason why the majority party is so important because the chair of the committee will be from the majority party and has the power to make those decisions within committee.

    Alexander Morse 3:54

    It sounds like there’s a lot of significant influence among leadership. And so we’re seeing that the Democrats are now going to be taking control of the Senate. Who was the previous chair of the H.E.L.P. Committee?

    Rebecca Natow 4:04

    The chair of the H.E.L.P. Committee until just early January, at the close of the previous Congress was Senator Lamar Alexander from Tennessee. Senator Alexander has retired at the end of the 116th Congress. Now that the Democrats will be controlling the Senate, it will be a Democratic leader for the H.E.L.P. Committee, which is likely to be Senator Patty Murray from Washington who has served as the Democratic ranking member on the H.E.L.P. Committee for the past six years.

    Alexander Morse 4:38

    I just want to make one note that as we’re recording this, we don’t know that it’s going to be Patty Murray, but all indications point that she will be assuming the leadership position of the H.E.L.P. Committee.

    Rebecca Natow 4:47

    That’s correct.

    Alexander Morse 4:48

    Just returning to Senator Lamar Alexander, how long did he have that post of chair of H.E.L.P. committee?

    Rebecca Natow 4:54

    Senator Alexander had served as chair of the H.E.L.P. Committee since the Republicans took control of Congress following the 2014 elections. Senator Alexander has had an extensive history working in higher education and with higher education policy. He had been a previous president of the University of Tennessee and had served as secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush. So he has an extensive experience and background in higher education and working with higher education policy matters.

    Alexander Morse 5:24

    That’s encouraging to know that someone who’s in a really influential position has extensive background and experience in that topic area. What were some of Senator Alexander’s priorities and what has been accomplished since 2014?

    Rebecca Natow 5:39

    One of Senator Alexander’s biggest accomplishments as H.E.L.P. committee chair was the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which was a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. This was considered a bipartisan bill, it passed with wide bipartisan support, and it was one of the first accomplishments of Senator Alexander’s chair of the H.E.L.P. Committee and also of Senator Patty Murray as ranking member of the H.E.L.P. Committee. In my research that I’ve conducted on federal higher education policy, I learned that Senators Alexander and Murray worked collaboratively on that bill to shore up the votes from their respective parties to get that bill passed. That was an elementary and secondary education policy with regard to higher education policies, some of Senator Alexander’s more notable accomplishments include the simplification of the free application for federal student aid, also known as the FAFSA form. This was a big priority of Senator Alexander’s, he was known to carry the big FAFSA form with him on the floor of the Senate and hold it out and show how long the document was and how complicated it was. So simplification of the FAFSA form was another accomplishment of his and something that he highly prioritized. Also as chair of the H.E.L.P. Committee, Senator Alexander oversaw permanent funding passing for minority serving institutions under Title III of the Higher Education Act. There were various expansions of the Pell Grant for low-income students and most recently restoration of the Pell Grant for incarcerated students. Back in 2013, when Senator Alexander was ranking member of the H.E.L.P. Committee, he supported and worked to pass a bipartisan bill that lowered student loan interest rates. This policy passed with bipartisan support during the Obama Administration. And Senator Alexander recently cited this bill in his farewell speech on the Senate floor as an example of a bipartisan policy that was helpful to higher education students and something that he was particularly proud of.

    Alexander Morse 7:49

    We have a clip of that speech from CSPAN.org.

    Senator Lamar Alexander 7:52

    Our country needs a United States Senate to work across party lines, to force broad agreements on hard issues, creating laws that most of us have voted for, and that a diverse country will accept. In the 1930s, we needed the Senate to create Social Security. After World War II, the United Nations. In the 60s, Medicare. 1978, to ratify the Panama Canal Treaty. In 2013, more recently, to tie interest rates for student loans to the market rate, saving student borrowers hundreds of billions of dollars in the last several years.

    Alexander Morse 8:39

    It’s almost refreshing to hear about work being done collaboratively at the federal level. It sounds like Senator Alexander and the H.E.L.P. Committee, in general, was a pretty active and really important committee. So what could we expect is going to happen moving forward now that Democrats will have control of the Senate?

    Rebecca Natow 8:58

    It’s interesting that there was so much collaboration and bipartisanship because, importantly, the H.E.L.P. Committee was not able to pass a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which is pass due for reauthorization. So despite the fact that Senators Alexander and Murray as leaders of the committee got along well, by all accounts, Senator Alexander was very well liked by other policymakers, including people who didn’t agree with him policy-wise, they genuinely liked him and respected him, and they still weren’t able to get that reauthorization passed. So a lot of observers, including myself, are skeptical that a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act is going to pass anytime soon. In terms of what we can expect from Senator Patty Murray going forward in terms of her priorities, college affordability is a big priority of Senator Murray and has been for some time. She has supported expansion of the Pell Grant. She has supported partnerships between states and the federal government to work to make higher education more affordable at the state level. She’s also been a critic of the Department of Education’s recent Title IX rule, which was issued earlier this year. And she’s also been a big proponent of accountability and oversight in higher education, particularly for the for-profit sector. Senator Murray frequently discusses the need for guardrails around higher education programs. So those are items that are likely to be priorities for her as chair of the H.E.L.P. Committee.

    Alexander Morse 10:33

    Could you touch on what guardrails means here?

    Rebecca Natow 10:37

    What she means in that context is basically protections set out for students who are attending programs that they’re taking out a large amount of money in federal student loans. There had been some accountability policies in place from the Department of Education during the Obama Administration. That was an attempt to sort of protect the interests of students attending career focused higher education programs, a lot of fully online higher education programs, particularly in the for-profit higher education sector. During the Trump Administration, many of those regulations have been relaxed or rolled back or even completely eliminated. And Senator Patty Murray has been critical of that saying that those protections need to be in place to protect student interests who attend those institutions.

    Alexander Morse 11:23

    So it sounds like this plan to help make college or higher education more affordable is on both ends. There’s cost containment measures, and also scholarship or tuition measures to help people who are financially burdened to be able to apply to these schools and attend them.

    Rebecca Natow 11:41

    That’s correct. Also when they complete their programs to be in a position to pay back those student loans that they took out to help finance their higher education.

    Alexander Morse 11:51

    That’s great. On a side note, I know I have debt.

    Rebecca Natow 11:54

    A lot of people do.

    Alexander Morse 11:57

    We briefly touched on the role that now Democrats have control over the Senate and the House that they might be able to advance different policy agendas. What can the legislature do differently than the Biden Administration?

    Rebecca Natow 12:16

    I just want to reiterate, the Democrats are going to have the slimmest of slim majorities in the next Congress. A 50/50 split along party lines in the Senate, with Vice President Kamala Harris being the tie breaking vote. The Democrats still have a majority of seats in the House of Representatives, but that’s a slimmer majority than they had even in the previous Congress. So it will be very important for congressional leadership in both chambers to keep their party unified in order to get bills passed.

    Alexander Morse 12:46

    Politics as always.

    Rebecca Natow 12:47

    As always, that’s correct. Now this includes the Democratic Party has more conservative Democrats like Senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia and more progressive Democrats like Senator Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts. So to find a bill that will keep all of the Democrats on board will be important. If any of the Democrats decide they can’t support a bill, then the Senate leadership would need to make up the difference with some Republican votes. In the Senate, it’s even more complicated than that because the filibuster still applies to most of the legislation that’s going to affect higher education in the Senate. That means that a vote of 60 senators is needed to end debate on a bill in order to move it forward for a vote. For that reason, it’s important to have at least some bipartisan support for most policies to get through the Senate. That’s one of the reasons why I’m skeptical that a Higher Education Act reauthorization will pass in the next Congress, because Higher Education Act reauthorizations are very comprehensive. They tend to include policies that can be contentious and where the parties aren’t likely to agree, for example, on Title IX and issues involving tuition free college and debt cancellation. It’ll be unlikely to get to that vote of 60 senators that will be needed to move a vote forward in the Senate on issues like that.

    Alexander Morse 14:11

    So if there’s a challenge legislatively to pass these measures, what could the Biden/Harris Administration do at the executive level?

    Rebecca Natow 14:19

    At the executive level, there are a number of actions that can be taken through executive action with regard to higher education. As we’ve seen in the past few presidential administrations, through the rulemaking process that happens in the Department of Education, there’s been higher education issues addressed. I was discussing previously, the accountability policies that had gone through the Department of Education during the Obama Administration, including the gainful employment rule and the borrower defense to repayment rule. The Title IX guidance that had come out during the Obama Administration, which was then rescinded during the Trump Administration, and then the Trump Administration went through the rulemaking process to issue a new Title IX rule that came out in 2020. These are examples of the types of things that can be done through the Department of Education. Also as president, Joe Biden can issue executive orders directing the Department of Education to take certain actions. And Biden has already said that one of his priorities, and it might even be a day one priority for his administration, was to continue the pause that is currently in place on student loan repayments. So that’s another thing that President Biden can do through executive action. Another thing that’s been important in recent years has been the issuance of student visas for international students to study in the United States. That is something that is done within the executive branch and the Department of Homeland Security. International student enrollments in United States higher education institutions has declined over the past few years. There have been a lot of visa restrictions and regulations put into place under the Trump Administration. So that’s another area where President Biden can, through his administration, change visa policies to encourage more international students to come and study in the United States.

    Alexander Morse 16:15

    It sounds like there’s been a lot of activity in higher education policy and there’s going to continue to be even more. So we’re really thankful that we had you on today’s episode to help us break some of it down. We’re going to continue following up with your research at the Rockefeller Institute. Rebecca, thank you for joining us today and can’t wait to have you back.

    Rebecca Natow 16:35

    Great. Thank you so much for having me.

    Alexander Morse 16:50

    Thanks again to Rebecca Natow for joining us to review the importance of congressional leadership and its impact on higher education policy. You can check out her blog by visiting our website at rockinst.org. I also invite you to visit our website to learn more about various policy issues such as how the opioid epidemic and overdose mortality has been affected by the Coronavirus, how municipal governments are responding to the pandemic, plus the latest in gun policy research and much, much more. I’d like to close with one more goodbye to 2020 and a hearty hello to a productive new year. Thanks for listening. I’m Alex Morse. Until next time.

    Alexander Morse 18:23

    Policy Outsider is presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York. The Institute conducts cutting edge nonpartisan public policy research and analysis to inform lasting solutions to the challenges facing New York State and the nation. Learn more at rockinst.org or by following RockefellerInst on social media. Have a question, comment, or idea? Email us at [email protected].

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