Legislative Updates

 Senate Committee Schedules Confirmation Hearing on Nominee for Labor Secretary

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) will hold a confirmation hearing on Alexander Acosta’s nomination to serve as secretary of the Department of Labor on Wednesday, March 22. The hearing was originally scheduled for this Wednesday, March 15 but Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chairman of the HELP Committee, will be attending an event in Nashville with President Trump at that time.

Mr. Acosta has served in three federally appointed positions, including as a member of the National Labor Relations Board, an assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice, and U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida. He has most recently served as dean of the Florida International University College of Law.

This hearing comes almost a full month after President Trump announced Mr. Acosta’s nomination following the abrupt withdrawal of previous Labor Secretary nominee, Andy Puzder. While Mr. Acosta is expected to be easily confirmed, he will face tough questions from Democrats on the Committee surrounding a 2007 case he prosecuted involving a billionaire and underage victims of sexual assault. Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), ranking member of the HELP Committee, has also indicated she plans to ask questions surrounding his ability to stand up to political pressure and how he will advocate for workers if confirmed.

Mr. Acosta has received support from Republicans including Chairman Lamar Alexander, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), chairwoman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. Chairman Alexander has lauded his impressive career and work in academia, and Richard Trumka, president of AFL-CIO, has expressed cautious optimism in President Trump’s selection of a proven public servant to fill the position.

Democrats Call for Hearings on Education Appointees

Based on Secretary DeVos’ statements during her confirmation hearing that she would rely heavily on her staff in critical areas including policy, civil rights, and postsecondary education, Democrats from the HELP Committee have sent a letter to Chairman Alexander requesting full hearings for all appointed positions in the Department of Education. The senators argue there is precedent for holding hearings on sub-Cabinet-level positions and it should be exercised in this case. Chairman Alexander has not responded to the request.

House Veterans Affairs Committee Pushes to Expand GI Bill Education Benefits

The House Veterans Affairs Committee passed a bill on Tuesday, March 7 that would allow veterans awarded the Purple Heart decoration to receive GI Bill educational benefits, even if they were not on active duty for the 36-month period required. The legislation, H.R. 1329 introduced by Rep. Scott Peters (D-CA), would immediately allow 1,200 to 1,500 Purple Heart recipients eligibility for GI Bill benefits, and create new beneficiaries going forward. Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN), Chairman of the VA Committee, is supportive of the bill but said it will be necessary to find the mandatory offsets to pay for the changes.

This Week’s  Hearings:

  • On Wednesday, March 15, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce will hold a hearing titled, “Improving Federal Student Aid to Better Meet the Needs of Students.”
  • On Thursday, March 16, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce will a hold a hearing titled, “Honoring Our Commitment to Recover and Protect Missing and Exploited Children.”

Regulatory Update

Gainful Employment Rule Delayed

The Department of Education announced it is delaying two provisions of the Obama Administration’s gainful employment rule which judges college programs based on student loan debt of graduates compared to their earnings after completing a degree. Under the Obama Administration, schools whose debt-to-earnings rates fail or are in a warning zone for multiple years would lose access to federal financial aid programs. The programs who had not met the requirement as of January 2017 were scheduled to submit “alternative earnings appeals” to the “debt-to-earnings” rates by March 10, but have been given until July 1. These programs must also comply with disclosure requirements and previously had a deadline of April 3 that has also been pushed to July 1.

The Department of Education has said officials need time to further review the rule and new staff have concerns over student data and privacy because audits must be completed by a third-party auditor. A spokesman for the Department indicated the Trump Administration is addressing the rule with an “even handed approach.”

Colleges Still Struggling with President Trump’s Immigration Executive Order

After extreme controversy over President Trump’s first executive order (EO) banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, he released a softened version on March 6. However, the new EO brings little relief to colleges and universities. Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities, has said the new order still “poses a fundamental long-term threat to America’s global leadership in higher education.” She worries the EO conveys a message that the world’s most talented students, scientists, engineers, and scholars are no longer welcome in America. The American Council on Education and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities have released similar statements.