Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Midterm Exam. Election. I mean Election.

In a profoundly moving tribute to the American spirit of civic duty, the barely one-third of eligible Americans who bothered (or were allowed) to vote gave control of both houses of the US Congress and the majority of state legislatures to the Republican Party. The last polls closed less than 12 hours ago, but that hasn't deterred the higher education punditocracy from declaring last night either the end of the world or the end of history.

Nor, of course, will it stop your intrepid higher ed futurist. UVU put that in my job description, after all, and part of that job is to cut through the sensationalism of the higher ed punditocracy. There are usually some gems beneath the hype, and election analysis is no exception. There are some things that we can expect, and we do need to understand why many of the dire/triumphal predictions aren't likely to come through.

The (Non-)Triumph of the Republican Senate

As of 10:00 the morning after, the Associated Press reported that the GOP was likely to extend its majority in the House by 12 seats to 248, and would gain 8 seats in the Senate for a total of 53, thus taking control of both Houses. The implications of that are not as clear as it may seem, however. Little changes in the House; most procedures there are strictly majoritarian and both parties have been voting more reliably among party lines for the past several Congresses, so extending the majority has little effect. Changing control of the Senate matters, but not in ways that one might think.

The Senate prides itself on being the world's finest deliberative body, and its rules reflect that. There is, under most circumstances, no limit on debate in the Senate. Historically that has allowed Senators to stop action on legislation supported by a majority by refusing to yield the floor: the famed filibuster. Fond memories of Jimmy Stewart aside, filibusters rarely happen in dramatic fashion today; the Senate simply moves on to other business. That makes a filibuster much easier to accomplish, and virtually every bill is now at risk of being talked to death. In practice, then, passing a bill in the Senate requires 60 votes, the number required to invoke cloture and end debate. As long as the opposition has at least 41 votes they can prevent the Senate from voting on the bill.

Filibusters have thoroughly gridlocked the Senate, and that won't change when the majority does. In the current Congress, Republicans filibustered Democrats. The change in majority changes the positions of the parties but not the overall dynamic. I don't expect much more action from the Senate in the coming Congress than in the departing one. Remember that the Congress is designed to do nothing, and the Senate will continue to act exactly as Madison intended:
So when the usual talking head pundits/think-tank researchers are quoted as seeing "an opportunity for a Republican-led Congress to embrace 'some of the more imaginative ideas out there' by those Republicans, 'who see student debt and college affordability as a campaign issue that families, their constituents are going to care about for a long time coming," it is probably safe to say that they are trying to persuade people to do that rather than making an informed prediction.

Legislation: Budgets, Yes; HEA and ESEA, No

One area where legislative power will matter is in budget issues. Technically (but not practically) budgets are not subject to filibusters; even to the extent that the procedures for dealing with a budget resolution can be filibustered budgets are less likely to be because everyone has something in the budget. It is very unlikely that higher education issues would lead to a budget filibuster. This could lead to changes in the availability of student aid (such as cuts in Pell Grants), but also to challenges from Republicans to funding for programs in the National Science Foundation. An overall more austere budgetary environment is likely, and that can be expected to carry over into funding for higher education programs, and there is every expectation that sequestration will further constrain funding for many programs already authorized.

There are also two major pieces of legislation that must be reauthorized by the next Congress, the Higher Education Act and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (which created No Child Left Behind and is a significant driver of Common Core). We can expect, first and foremost, much greater opposition to the Obama Administration's proposals on ESEA. Soon-to-be former Senator Tom Harkin, who currently chairs the HELP committee, had proposed a major HEA reauthorization bill, but it too is now more-or-less a dead issue; the presumed chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, Lamar Alexander, intends to "start from scratch" on the bill. I expect that ESEA will be allowed to expire in the absence of agreement. HEA authorizes the bulk of financial aid programs, and members know that their middle class constituents see it as an entitlement for them and not an anti-poverty program. Since neither agreement on a fundamentally new act nor letting it expire are practical options, I suspect a short-term continuation of HEA will be likely. But I suspect that those would be the most likely outcomes for nearly any Congress right now. As Sherman Dorn of Arizona State University put it, "Wasn’t happening before the election, likely won’t happen in the next two years, either."

Oversight of the Department of Education

The most significant changes will come from the change in leadership. Republicans will replace Democrats as the majority leader and, importantly, committee chairs. That does have some significant effects. Committee chairs have significant effects on legislation (though party leaders have gained in this regard of late), and even more so on the actions of the bureaucracy through the committees' role in oversight. That makes the new chair of the HELP committee a very important player for higher education, with considerable influence over pending actions from the Department of Education.

Alexander has a long history history with higher education, as former Governor of Tennessee, President of the university of Tennessee, and Secretary of Education under President George H. W. Bush. He is expected to push deregulation of higher education and especially of accreditation (having previously sought to separate financial aid eligibility from accreditation), reduce the number of aid programs through consolidation, and simplify the FAFSA. He has also pursued conservative-leaning political stances into accreditation, having held up the renewal of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education's accreditation authority over diversity issues while approving that of the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools in spite of an advisory board's recommendation to the contrary. Most of that can be done by the Department of Education without legislation, and Alexander will be in a strong position to push those issues with the department, as well as to influence proposals from the President on Gainful Employment and PIRS.

Higher Education in the States

Like many policy issues, there is a lot of noise at the federal level but the really transformational (for good or ill) policies happen at the state level. Results of the elections are a mixed bag there. While much attention was devoted to higher ed issues, it doesn't look like they were a major factor in gubernatorial elections, nor was there any consistent direction in higher ed policy among winners or losers. In spite of stronger Republican control, we have seen some states (including Utah) putting money into higher education in recent years, and the election shouldn't really change that; Sherman Dorn notes that there is divergence across states driven as much by institutional differences and budget constraints as policy preferences. Utah went firmly with the status quo at the state level, so the elections shouldn't change much of the political environment for higher education in Salt Lake City.

Update: The Long Term

I've seen a few questions already about whether this is a long-term shift in how voters think. Of course the Republicans are claiming this is a fundamental affirmation of their ideas, and Democrats are rending their garments amidst weeping and gnashing of teeth. But remember that just about everyone we hear from right now not only has a horse in the race; they also live and breathe nothing but that horse. Both sides may be overreacting just a bit.

Really, this looks pretty typical as second-term midterm elections go. Since World War II (excluding the 1998 election, a very odd duck following President Clinton's impeachment), the President's party lost an average of 35 seats in the House and 7 in the Senate. The electoral map also favored the GOP this year, with many open and even Democrat-controlled seats in areas where one would expect Republicans to succeed. Tom Harkin's vacant seat in Iowa is a great example, held by a Democrat long after the state shifted right thanks to the advantages of incumbency.

Measuring change in voters' attitudes by seats won rather than by votes cast also makes little sense in a single-member district system, where small but consistent changes in votes across many districts can swing many seats. Republicans won 22 of 35 contested Senate seats in this election (two states had special elections to fill vacancies), but won on average 51.9% of the vote across all elections. (The percentage of total votes is distorted in the Senate because of vast differences in states' populations.) In House elections contested by both major parties, Republicans won 59.5% of the seats with on average 51.7% of the votes. Those vote shares are solid numbers for Republicans but hardly revolutionary ones.

So overall there isn't much to say long-term about this election. The Senate's map shifts back to the Democrats' advantage in 2016, the punditocracy seems to think that the GOP has weaker presidential candidates for 2016 which will affect races down the ballot, and Republican turnout is more stable than that of Democrats. In terms of long-term changes, I expect 2014 and 2016 will be a wash.

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