At the beginning of each new Congress, the House and Senate lay out ambitious agendas that will guide their work throughout the two year session. Each Committee Chair defines his or her priorities with the goal of raising awareness about key issues and hopefully passing legislation to advance those goals. With the Republicans controlling the U.S. House of Representatives, and the Democrats controlling both the U.S. Senate and the White House, finding common ground on an agenda, and advancing legislation, is going to be a challenge for the 118th U.S. Congress.

As Spring comes to Washington, Congress will soon reconvene, with Members returning to the Capitol from their district work period. Members of Congress and their staff will have some busy days in front of them: holding hearings, drafting legislation, managing appropriations, issuing Dear Colleague letters, and sorting through and ranking important Community Funded Projects. In contrast to all of that activity, Members of Congress and staff are also doing a lot of waiting.

So, what is Congress working on behind the scenes and on center stage?

Debt Ceiling
The number one issue facing this Congress is the debt ceiling. It is the elephant in every room. When government spending exceeds receipts, the government has to borrow money to meet its obligations. According to Congressional Research Service, the “amount of money that the U.S. Treasury may borrow, is restricted by a statutory limit on the debt,” or, a debt ceiling. Congress has to raise that ceiling to ensure our nation makes good on its debts. See this White House Explainer for more information.

Most Republicans (including House Speaker Kevin McCarthy) will only consider a debt ceiling increase if it is tied to spending cuts that will reduce the nation’s deficit. President Biden demands a “clean extension,” i.e., an increase without any concessions. The Speaker has asked for meetings with the President; in response, President Biden has said that the Republicans must first release a budget, as he did in March. With the House Republicans expressing their desire to cut spending as part of the debt ceiling debate, one can see how that position complicates the Appropriations Committee’s work for funding federal government programs. The standoff over the debt ceiling is already limiting progress on the more straightforward appropriations bills and will continue to do so until it is resolved. Dueling letters, dueling positions, and high stakes for our national and world economies—this is a must-do agenda item without a clear path toward passage.

Both the House and the Senate have held numerous hearings on the Administration’s FY24 budget. Released on March 9, the President’s Budget included a 13.6% increase to federal education programs for a total of $90 billion in discretionary funding. The budget included a proposed $820 increase to the maximum Pell Grant (of which $500 is discretionary) and level funding for the Campus Based Aid programs ($910 million for the federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant program and $1.23 billion for Federal Work Study). While the funding Subcommittees continue to hold hearings, weigh testimony on spending priorities from Agency heads and outside witnesses, and navigate tight deadlines for recommending Community Funded Projects, it is hard to see how this work advances to the next stage, especially in the Senate, without a clear understanding of what the top line numbers are for each of the appropriations subcommittees. Despite the House majority’s ambitious timeline for completing work on the FY24 budget and appropriations, this work will stall until the debt ceiling issue is resolved.

House Education Committee
The Republican-controlled House Education and Workforce Committee has put a spotlight on education, by flexing its muscle in the oversight arena. Chaired by Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), the House Education and Workforce Committee has been diving into such issues as protecting free speech on college campuses and examining the implication of the Biden Administration’s student loan policies on students and taxpayers. The Committee majority has portrayed the American educational system as one in crisis, and investigated what they perceive is at the root cause. One of the first bills considered on the House floor was the partisan H.R. 5, a.k.a. the “Parents Bill of Rights,” which passed by a vote of 213-208 (with only five Republicans voting against it). With its focus on K-12 education, it sent a sign that education will remain in the spotlight. This key authorizing Committee is looking through a very different lens in comparison to their Senate colleagues, as they choose which policy issues to prioritize in their jurisdiction.

Senate Education Committee
Led by the Democrats, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee has focused on hearings in the labor and health care space. The Committee has sought answers to the issue of increasing drug prices for COVID-19 vaccines, and investigated businesses that have sought to make joining unions more difficult. On a bipartisan front, Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Ranking Member Bill Cassidy, M.D. (R-LA) have teamed up on issues including child labor violations and have asked for input on the reauthorization of the Education Sciences Act. These bipartisan efforts may yield results and allow legislation to advance in the Senate. To date, there have been no hearings about the Higher Education Act or education in general. While operating in a more bi-partisan mode, there are still issues like the President’s student loan forgiveness proposal that divide both parties in the Senate.

U.S. Department of Education
Perhaps the busiest of bees this spring are not the ones pollenating outside, but the staff of the U.S. Department of Education, who have laid out a most ambitious agenda for regulations in higher education. By May, we expect to see final Title IX regulations requiring new policies for campuses related to nondiscrimination on the basis of sex. The Department is currently seeking comment on Title IX changes related to transgender students’ eligibility for athletic teams. In addition, the Department has put forward far-reaching guidance on the definition of Third Party-Servicers, as well as Online Program managers. In the wings, there is a proposed negotiated rulemaking that could cover any one of nearly twenty topics, all of importance and impacting institutions of higher education. These are far reaching in scope, potentially impacting programs like TRIO, and raising issues on complex topics like state authorization, gainful employment, and factors of financial responsibility.

We will keep you apprised of these issues in the weeks and months to come.

By Jenny Smulson, Vice President for Government Relations, AJCU