In Washington, gridlock is a running theme. So it’s not surprising that, even before all the winners of the election were named, experienced observers put the odds of higher education legislation at close to zero. After all, Congress has only passed one comprehensive higher education bill in the last 20 years, and the Capitol is now under divided control.
This time, though, the skeptics might be wrong. The 119th Congress may be the first to rewrite the Higher Education Act since 2008.
Key congressional leaders are saying the right things. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), who is expected to lead the House education committee, will make higher education a priority. So will Senate chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who is entering his last term leading the Senate education committee. Patty Murray (D-WA), the Democratic point person in the Senate, is a seasoned legislator with a track record of success. Together with Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-VA), this is the same Big Four that defied expectations and shepherded the Every Student Succeeds Act into law in 2015.
Alexander has been exploring higher education for three years already, and over the last 12 months, Foxx worked hard to advance her flawed PROSPER Act. Their failure may seem discouraging, but the reality is that most legislation fails, often several times, before it succeeds. Past efforts serve as roadmaps, helping future legislators avoid pitfalls and find common ground.
Another counter-intuitive factor: divided control can actually make legislation easier. In the 38 years since the Democrat-led reauthorization in 1980, the HEA has never been reauthorized unless the parties shared control over the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the White House.
That’s not just an interesting bit of historical trivia: in the Senate, the minority party must cooperate to avoid a filibuster. If that party does not control either the House or the White House, these senators may block any movement out of fear that they will be denied a seat at the table later in the process.