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. Read more from this blog.

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

Jobs The EdWeek Top School Jobs Virtual Career Fair
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
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
Mathematics Webinar
Engaging Young Students to Accelerate Math Learning
Join learning scientists and inspiring district leaders, for a timely panel discussion addressing a school district’s approach to doubling and tripling Math gains during Covid. What started as a goal to address learning gaps in
Content provided by Age of Learning & Digital Promise, Harlingen CISD
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
Curriculum Webinar
How to Power Your Curriculum With Digital Books
Register for this can’t miss session looking at best practices for utilizing digital books to support their curriculum.
Content provided by OverDrive

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal As GOP Leaves K-12 Out of Its Infrastructure Plan, Advocates Look For Alternatives
The GOP is proposing $1 trillion in federal dollars for the nation's infrastructure, but school buildings aren't part of their proposal.
6 min read
A trash can and pink kiddie pool are used to collect water that leaks from the roof into the media center at Green County High School in Snow Hill, N.C..
A trash can and pink kiddie pool are used to collect water that leaks from the roof into the media center at Green County High School in Snow Hill, N.C.
Alex Boerner for Education Week
Federal Biden Pick for Education Civil Rights Office Has History With Racial Equity, LGBTQ Issues
Biden selected Catherine Lhamon to lead the Education Department's civil rights work, a role she also held in the Obama administration.
2 min read
Flags decorate a space outside the office of the Education Secretary at the Education Department in Washington on Aug. 9, 2017.
Flags decorate a space outside the office of the Education Secretary at the Education Department in Washington on Aug. 9, 2017.
Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Federal Lawmakers Press CDC About Teachers' Union Influence on School Reopening Guidance
Republican senators asked CDC Director Rochelle Walensky about reports a teachers' union had input on guidance for schools on COVID-19.
3 min read
Dr. Rochelle Walensky speaks during an event in Wilmington, Del., to announce President-elect Joe Biden's health care team on Dec. 8, 2020.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, CDC director, speaks during an event in Wilmington, Del., to announce then-President-elect Joe Biden's health care team on Dec. 8, 2020.
Susan Walsh/AP
Federal Biden Taps Ex-Obama Aide Roberto Rodriguez for Key Education Department Job
Rodriguez served as a top education staffer to President Barack Obama and currently leads a teacher-advocacy organization.
3 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE
Getty