Obscure House speaker’s record on higher education cloudy

Coralie Carlson

Rep. J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., took the helm of the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday as speaker, but his low-profile personality left higher education officials in the dark about what to expect.
Hastert, 57, assumed the speakership from Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., who left office following the Republicans’ poor results in the House elections. Rep. Bob Livingston, R-La., was positioned to become speaker until he stepped down last month amid controversy about his extramarital affairs. Hastert, who previously shied away from the national media, arose to take the spotlight.
“This isn’t a job I sought, but one I embrace with determination and enthusiasm,” Hastert said on the House floor Wednesday.
Richard Schoell, director of governmental relations at the University of Illinois in the new speaker’s home state, said Hastert has a record of supporting that school and higher education in general.
Schoell, who has worked with Hastert for many years, said the new speaker backs federally sponsored research programs, both in funding and in science policy. Hastert also worked on legislation affecting health care and retirement policy in Illinois and gave the school overall budget support, Schoell said.
Hastert’s predecessor was also an outspoken advocate of science and technology research, said Tom Etten, the University’s director of federal relations. As a result, the national health and science institutes received funding boosts under Gingrich’s tenure.
But Hastert’s relative anonymity — his name drew blank stares from many across the nation until he rose as prospective speaker weeks ago — and inconsistent voting record made higher education officials wonder how he will affect higher education.
Hastert voted for the Higher Education Act last session, which shaped financial aid funding and programs for the next five years. He also voted for an amendment barring federal funds to schools with affirmative action policies — a measure opposed by higher education lobbyists that eventually failed.
The speaker, once a high school wrestling coach, also pushed legislation concerning college sports. One bill required colleges to give four years notice before dropping an athletic program; another attacked Title IX policies where men’s programs were being dropped and women’s sports outnumbered men’s. Education lobbyists generally opposed both initiatives because they interfered with schools’ autonomy; both initiatives ultimately failed.
Overall, many lawmakers consider Hastert a fair and pragmatic leader, and an expert in health care and social security.
“I think he sets a different tone than Gingrich did, and I think it’s a more civil tone,” said Rep. Martin Olav Sabo, D-Minn. Sabo said he hopes Hastert will work better with Democrats than the former speaker, but he will wait to see how the new leadership works.