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California Congressman Named Chair Of House Education Committee

California Congressman Named Chair Of House Education Committee
By Charles Dervarics

Higher education advocates will be dealing with new education leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives after the election of a new chairman for the panel that oversees colleges and universities.

Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., was elected chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, the panel responsible for student financial aid policy and the Higher Education Act. McKeon is replacing Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, who won election as House majority leader, the second highest-ranking post in the House (see Diverse, Feb. 23).

A member of Congress since 1992, McKeon has a long track record on post-secondary education, serving as chair of a subcommittee dealing with job training and higher education for 10 years. Prior to his election to Congress, McKeon was mayor of Santa Clarita, Calif.

“He knows the issues, and he has shown a real capacity for hearing all sides of an argument and finding solutions to the challenges that the committee faces,” said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., in endorsing the appointment. The House Republican Steering Committee had recommended McKeon earlier in February.

In a statement after his election, McKeon said his major goals are to improve education and reduce excessive regulations in the sector. “This is a great honor and a great challenge,” he said. The California lawmaker also identified a goal to help the U.S. work force adapt to a high-tech global economy. “The edge that America brings to the table is innovation and adaptability,” he said.

McKeon had little competition for the chairmanship. Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis., a moderate and the committee’s vice chairman, took himself out of the running, saying he wanted to devote more time to transportation issues. He chairs the House Subcommittee on Highways, Transit and Pipelines. Petri also is unpopular among some in the student loan industry for favoring reforms that reduce the role of financial institutions in that process.

The chairman of the 21st Century Competitiveness Subcommittee for a decade, McKeon has chaired a number of hearings focused on renewing the Higher Education Act. McKeon was widely praised for leading a bipartisan 1998 reauthorization of HEA.

“That was very much a collaborative effort,” says Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. But with a Democrat, former President Clinton, in the White House in 1998, bipartisan cooperation was essential, he says. Now that Republicans control Congress and the White House, there has been little bipartisanship on higher education issues during the current attempts at reauthorization.

Both from a policy and administrative perspective, McKeon’s tenure may be similar to Boehner’s rule. Both have clear views but allow debate and opposing amendments, Nassirian says. On policy, both largely have worked in tandem during the most recent efforts to reauthorize HEA.
“He has a fine reputation,” Nassirian says of McKeon. However, “his policies have not always been viewed as helpful.”

In 2003, McKeon drew criticism from colleges for proposing a “college affordability index” to curb escalating tuition. Under the plan, schools that increased tuition beyond recommended levels would face sanctions. Most college leaders said the plan amounted to federal price controls.

That idea was “not something a free-market Republican would do,” Nassirian says of the plan, which ultimately went nowhere.

Adding to the potential difficulty is the bitter debate that accompanied the recent Deficit Reduction Act, in which Congress approved $12.7 billion in cuts to student loan programs. Those cuts are likely to lead to higher interest rates paid by students and families. With that issue decided, there may be little deadline pressure this year to renew other HEA policies and programs.

One of McKeon’s top needs is to build a committee staff and fill the jobs of staff director, general counsel and communications director. Most of Boehner’s core staff will move with him to his new post.
“He’s short on staff right now,” Nassirian says, and the issue may affect how soon the House takes up HEA bills or other education legislation. “By the time he regroups, it may be six months from now.”

The Education and the Workforce panel has five subcommittees, including the 21st Century Competitiveness subcommittee. The other subcommittees focus on education reform, employer/employee relations, work force protections and select education.

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