The Democrat poised to chair the House Education Committee said Wednesday that he will use his power to compel answers from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and her staff, and will seek common ground with Republicans on addressing soaring college costs.
But with Democrats winning control of the House of Representatives on Tuesday, don’t expect high-profile confrontations from Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott of Virginia, who won his 14th term representing a Hampton Roads district. And don’t expect him to champion the sort of expansive debt-free or tuition-free college proposals that have captivated many from the party’s liberal wing.
Rather, Scott intends to talk with his Republican colleagues and see if there is common ground for legislation overhauling the federal Higher Education Act, which is overdue for a rewrite.
“Unless you have some kind of bipartisan support, it’s going to be difficult to pass a bill,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “To the extent we can achieve bipartisan support, we’ll make every effort to do it.”
In the summer, Scott laid out his approach in legislation dubbed Aim Higher. His bill encourages states to offer two years of tuition-free community college, expand federal aid to low-income students by increasing Pell Grants and expand oversight of for-profit colleges. The Republican proposal, by contrast, would eliminate regulations on for-profit colleges and pare back student aid programs.
But the Scott bill is also some distance from proposals by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and others for debt-free or tuition-free four-year college. Sanders, who put this idea at the center of his 2016 presidential campaign, said Wednesday that it’s fine to start with free community college. But he said it must build to a broader policy of free public university, an essential ticket into the American middle class.
“What the American people want is boldness,” he said in an interview. He said he thinks Republicans may soften their opposition, but even if they don’t, Democrats should push. “You get it out there, we campaign on it, we fight, and we will ask the Republicans what their problem is.”
Scott will have more autonomy on oversight of the Education Department. Democrats assert that congressional Republicans have been lax in examining DeVos’s policies. Scott said his committee would review civil rights enforcement, accreditation of questionable for-profit colleges and other matters.
But he said he isn’t anticipating conflict. He expects DeVos and her staff to respond to requests for information and said there won’t be a need for a string of high-profile hearings if they do.
“You don’t need somebody testifying if you have the answers you requested,” he said. “I would expect when we have questions, we’ll get answers.” He said he thinks it is reasonable to have DeVos testify once or twice during a two-year congressional session. During her first two years as education secretary, she testified once.
Elizabeth Hill, an Education Department spokeswoman, said her agency will “certainly be responsive” to Democratic oversight efforts.
Colleagues say Scott is comfortable with this low-key approach, even if it frustrates Democrats who want louder, angrier resistance.
“People are looking for wins and gotchas. Bobby Scott is not a gotcha guy,” said Denise Forte, who worked with him for 20 years as a congressional staffer and was his staff director before becoming a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a think tank.
She said she would sometimes see him and his GOP counterpart, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), chatting amiably on the House floor.
“I think the two of them would someday be very happy in rocking chairs talking about policy, even though they have very different views. That’s how they roll,” Forte said. “He is not about politics. He’s never played the game.”
Scott, who was the first African American to serve in Congress from Virginia since the 1890s, has built a reputation as a thoughtful policy wonk over a 40-year public service career that began in the Virginia General Assembly. His signature issues include civil rights and criminal justice.
In 2016, when Sen. Tim Kaine (Va.) was the Democratic nominee for vice president, Democrats in the state suggested Scott could ascend to the Senate if Kaine and running mate Hillary Clinton made it to the White House.
Reducing college costs and addressing mounting student debt became a major issue for Democrats during their 2016 presidential primary. Sanders would ask voters at his events to volunteer their interest rates. He said public colleges should be taxpayer-funded just as K-12 education is, and drew strong support from young people.
The issue has fallen off the top-level Democratic agenda since then. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a liberal group, counted 11 Democrats elected Tuesday who ran for the House promising some version of debt-free college.
Still, advocates hope Democrats can pave the way for bold proposals on college costs they hope to see during the 2020 campaign.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said she doesn’t expect Democrats to succeed in translating their ideas into law in the short term, given GOP control of the Senate and White House.
“I worry that people think that if we get a Democratic House of Representatives, that will be a magic wand. You have to be realistic in terms of the expectations,” the union leader said. But she said there is value in passing Democratic bills even if they die, so voters know what they would do if Democrats won the presidency in 2020.
“Should you do some of that so people see where your heart is? Yes,” she said.