Find your next job fast at the Jan. 28 Virtual Career Fair. Register now.
Opinion Blog


Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform.

Federal Opinion

What Would a Democratic Sweep of the Ga. Runoffs Mean for Education?

By Rick Hess — December 21, 2020 4 min read

With President-elect Joe Biden weeks away from moving into the White House and Democrats clinging to a narrow House majority, the shape of federal policy over the next two years will turn on what happens in Georgia next month. On Jan. 5, Georgia voters will decide runoffs for two U.S. Senate seats, determining whether Republicans will control the Senate or if Democrats will have unified control of the federal government for the first time in a decade.

A win by either of the GOP incumbents, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, would give the Republicans the majority. A sweep by their respective challengers, Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, would yield a 50-50 Senate in which Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would wield the tie-breaking vote. Let’s set aside the prospect of a divided government and consider the implications of unified Democratic control (even if by a wafer-thin margin).

This scenario would give the rightmost Democratic senator, West Virginia centrist Joe Manchin, immense influence over which legislation or nominations would move forward. Democratic ambitions would only go as far and as fast as Manchin would allow. Assuming Manchin stands by his opposition to abolishing the legislative filibuster, Senate Democrats would need Republican votes to enact major legislation—or else rely on “reconciliation,” which permits bills to pass with a bare majority if they are tightly focused on taxes or spending. Even if Democrats leaned on reconciliation, as Republicans did to enact their 2017 tax bill, they still couldn’t afford even a single Senate defection, once again making Manchin the gatekeeper.

In the House, the Democrats are currently projected to wind up with 222 seats (218 are required for a majority). And three of those Democrats have been tapped to join the Biden team, leaving things even tighter until their replacements are elected (all hail from reliably blue districts, so Democrats should hold the seats). This means that, on party-line votes, the Democrats won’t be able to do anything opposed by even a handful of caucus members. Consequently, Budget Committee Chair John Yarmuth has observed that it will be “very, very difficult” to advance legislation in the House. “There’s no way to sugarcoat it. I don’t know how we do anything significant,” he’s said.

What’s all this mean for education? Well, both left-wing aspirations and right-wing fears are likely to go unfulfilled. Even if the Democrats clean up in Georgia, ambitious legislative proposals like free college are unlikely to go anywhere. Major proposals that include anything more than dollars and cents couldn’t be pursued via reconciliation and thus would require Biden to deal with Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Now, both Biden and McConnell are consummate pros with a relationship that spans decades, so such negotiations might yield surprising movement. For instance, when it comes to boosting Pell Grants or adding federal funds for special education, it’s not hard to see the contours of an agreement—especially if Democrats are willing to steer aid to individuals rather than institutions.

Let’s be clear: I’m certainly not suggesting that the Georgia results won’t matter. They absolutely will. A Democratic Senate would make it a lot easier for Democrats to push large spending increases. Even the moderate wing of the Democratic Party will embrace expansive COVID-19 relief, new funds for state and local government, and more dollars for schools and colleges. Using reconciliation, Democrats could move much of this without a single Republican vote. A Democratic Senate will also more readily approve Biden appointments and can protect a Biden Department of Education from hostile hearings.

But much of what has excited progressives this year has extended beyond spending to things like “free” college, federal debt forgiveness, federal protections for union organizing, and new federal legislation governing gender identity in educational settings. This is stuff that can’t be pursued via reconciliation and that isn’t going anywhere in a 50-50 Senate, especially so long as the filibuster remains intact.

Now, the betting odds are that the Democrats aren’t going to sweep the two Georgia races. And, if it’s a GOP Senate, much will turn on the relationship between McConnell and President-elect Biden and on how far the Biden administration opts to move via executive action. There will be an interesting dynamic at work here. Biden may throttle back on executive action if he judges it will yield more legislative collaboration, as aggressive executive action is sure to create tensions with Hill Republicans. Conversely, legislative stalemate may turbocharge executive activity, as during the Obama administration.

In the end, though, the bottom line is that the Democrats’ fragile House majority, the continued existence of the filibuster, the limits of reconciliation, and Manchin’s centrism mean that even a strong Democratic showing on Jan.5 is likely to have a more modest impact on education than many might imagine.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Branding Matters. Learn From the Pros Why and How
Learn directly from the pros why K-12 branding and marketing matters, and how to do it effectively.
Content provided by EdWeek Top School Jobs
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
How to Make Learning More Interactive From Anywhere
Join experts from Samsung and Boxlight to learn how to make learning more interactive from anywhere.
Content provided by Samsung
Teaching Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table With Education Week: How Educators Can Respond to a Post-Truth Era
How do educators break through the noise of disinformation to teach lessons grounded in objective truth? Join to find out.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

BASE Program Site Director
Thornton, CO, US
Adams 12 Five Star Schools
Director of Information Technology
Montpelier, Vermont
Washington Central UUSD
Great Oaks AmeriCorps Fellow August 2021 - June 2022
New York City, New York (US)
Great Oaks Charter Schools
Director of Athletics
Farmington, Connecticut
Farmington Public Schools

Read Next

Federal How Biden's Data Mandate Could Help Schools Navigate the COVID-19 Crisis
An executive order directs the Education Department to collect data on issues like whether schools offer in-person learning.
4 min read
President Joe Biden signs executive orders after speaking about the coronavirus, accompanied by Vice President Kamala Harris, left, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, right, in the State Dinning Room of the White House, on Jan. 21, 2021, in Washington.
President Joe Biden signs executive orders after speaking about the coronavirus, accompanied by Vice President Kamala Harris, left, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, right, at the White House, on Jan. 21.
Alex Brandon/AP
Federal Early Education Department Appointees Have Links to Jill Biden, Teachers' Unions
President Joe Biden's 12 appointments have links to the players who could exert the most influence on the new administration's K-12 policy.
4 min read
President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden hug as they arrive at the North Portico of the White House on Jan. 20, 2021.
President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden hug as they arrive at the North Portico of the White House on inauguration day.
Alex Brandon/AP
Federal Biden Launches New Strategy to Combat COVID-19, Reopen Schools
The president plans a more centralized strategy that includes broader vaccine efforts, more data on the pandemic, and new school guidance.
5 min read
Public School 95 in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn is one of many schools in New York ordered to close due to a flare-up of coronavirus cases in the area on Oct. 5, 2020.
Public School 95 in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn is one of many schools in New York ordered to close due to a flare-up of coronavirus cases in the area on Oct. 5, 2020.
Kathy Willens/AP
Federal Biden Picks San Diego Superintendent for Deputy Education Secretary
San Diego Superintendent Cindy Marten was a classroom teacher for 17 years before she became a school and district administrator.
2 min read
Image of the White House seal
Bet Noire/Getty