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 observedthat 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.
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.