NAICU Washington Update

Taking a First Look at the New Key Committees

February 11, 2011

The November elections bordered on seismic in shaking up the congressional committees. The major shifts in committee composition, combined with the plethora of new members, will present opportunities and challenges for our priority issues in the 112th Congress.

The most dramatic changes occurred in the House, where Republicans gained 63 seats for a 242-member majority.  In the House, there are 87 new Republican members (at least 60 endorsed by the Tea Party), and nine new Democrats.  The new House Speaker, John Boehner (R-Ohio), is a former member and chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, and has extensive knowledge of higher education issues and priorities. 

In the Senate, Democrats maintained a slim 53-47 majority, with Republicans picking up 6 new seats.  Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will remain Majority Leader.

The House Appropriations Committee will be chaired by Rep. Hal Rogers (R- Ky.). Appropriators on both sides of the aisle will have to address pressures for a smaller government in a post-earmark environment.  The subcommittee with jurisdiction over higher education funding will be chaired by Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.).  Among NAICU priorities, funding the Pell Grant program and protecting the other student aid programs from cuts will likely be the largest issues facing appropriators.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) will chair the House Budget Committee.  Ryan is a fiscal conservative and proposed cuts to drastically reduce government spending (see the related Washington Update budget story).  Ryan's continuing resolution proposals are built upon his "Roadmap for America" proposal from last fall, which would have cut domestic spending and privatized parts of Medicare and Social Security.  The Budget Committee was formerly chaired by Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.) who lost his reelection bid, and was a strong advocate of the Perkins Loan Program. 

At the Education and Workforce Committee, Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.) will chair, and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) will stay on as Ranking Member. This committee has jurisdiction over the Higher Education Act, but will focus on reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) during this Congress - a process expected to be bipartisan.  One of the largest issues facing the education committees in the House, as well as in the Senate, will be how to address the proprietary school scandals, and whether or not proposed solutions will broadly impact all of higher education.

Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) will be the new chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, with Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.) remaining as Ranking Member. (It's not common for members from the same state to lead a committee.)  Levin has championed higher education tax issues for many years, including taking the lead on efforts to make IRC Sec. 127 - employer-provided education assistance - permanent.  Camp also is supportive of the higher education tax provisions.

The House Veterans Affairs Committee - the committee with jurisdiction over the GI Bill - will be chaired by Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.).  Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) will be the new chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, taking over for Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii).  These committees will have to address ongoing GI Bill issues, including complications from recent amendments to the bill.

Thus far, there have been no other changes to the chairs of key Senate committees.  The Senate will face similar pressure, however, to reduce spending.  In order to accomplish anything legislatively in the Senate, the work will have to be bipartisan.

New and returning members of both the House and Senate have been given committee assignments, although the Senate assignments are not official, and last-minute changes are still possible. Here is a list of members of the committees that are key to higher education.

Beyond advocating for our priorities, there is the matter of assuring new members have a basic grounding in higher education issues.  In the House are 96 new members who likely have little or no experience with our appropriations, education and tax issues - and must get up to speed in a fast-paced budget-cutting environment.  It will require a membership-wide advocacy effort to educate members on the higher education priorities so important to our students, families, and institutions.

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