Senate Democrats’ Bill to Renew Higher Education Act: Many Ideas, Little Hope of Passing

November 21, 2014

With only days remaining until his retirement, the Democratic chairman of the Senate education committee, Tom Harkin of Iowa, formally introduced legislation on Thursday offering his vision for renewing the Higher Education Act.

The 874-page bill builds on a draft that Senator Harkin released in June, adding provisions that would extend and reform the endangered Perkins loan program and the other campus-based aid programs; restore year-round Pell Grants to part-time students; and offer Pell bonuses to institutions that enroll low- and moderate-income students.

The bill would also create a unit-record system for tracking students, with privacy protections aimed at preventing the disclosure of sensitive information on students.

But many of Mr. Harkin's ideas face a difficult road ahead. The measure is unlikely to advance in the current Congress, which ends just after the New Year. After that, Republicans will take over the Senate, and Sen. Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, will become chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, or HELP. He has his own ideas about reauthorization, and plans to draft his own bill.

Even so, Mr. Harkin’s bill represents a starting point for negotiations between the parties. And some of the ideas may make it into Mr. Alexander’s measure, if the new chairman keeps his promise to involve Democrats in the drafting.

In an email, an aide to Senator Harkin described the measure as "the culmination of all the chairman and the HELP Committee’s work on higher education."

"The chairman wanted to lay out Democratic priorities for the next Congress," said the aide, who spoke on background to keep the focus on his boss.

Senate Democrats had been gearing up for Thursday’s introduction of the bill since last September, when the committee held the first of what would be 12 bipartisan hearings on reauthorization. Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives have also held multiple hearings, but they have opted for a piecemeal approach to renewing the bill—a contrast with the Senate’s comprehensive bill.

Thursday’s introduction came shortly after Mr. Harkin met with other top appropriators to discuss spending levels for education and other programs in the 2015 fiscal year, which began on October 1. (Since then, the government has been funded by continuing resolutions, at last year's levels.) The meeting was reportedly contentious, with lawmakers disagreeing over a Democratic plan to cut $2-billion from Pell Grants to pay for other programs, according to Congressional Quarterly. Such a move would create a shortfall in fiscal 2016 that the next Congress would have to cover.

Lawmakers are racing to finish work on the spending bills before December 11, when the current stopgap measure expires. If they can’t agree on omnibus legislation incorporating all of the spending bills, they may opt to continue spending at existing levels for some of the thornier measures, like the education bill. That would mean no new money for education programs until at least next October.