Officials keep tabs on Livingston’s education agenda

Coralie Carlson

The higher education community watched with cautious relief as Rep. Bob Livingston, R-La., replaced Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., as speaker of the House, following an election by Republican Congress members on Wednesday.
Although the new speaker is not closely connected to higher education issues, lobbyists said they’re hopeful Livingston will support college initiatives. In the past, Livingston has supported legislation for increasing Pell Grants and science and biomedical research and development, according to a report in the Chronicle of Higher Education last week.
As speaker, Livingston will spearhead the House’s agenda, decide which bills representatives will vote on and assign legislators to committee posts. But a narrow Republican majority — only a dozen seats — will make his job harder and require more bipartisan work to pass bills.
“Last session, both parties worked together to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, which lowered student loan costs and increased Pell grants,” said Dean Peterson, a spokesperson for Rep. Jim Ramstad, R-Minn. “So are we hopeful that this new Congress will usher in an era of problem solving and bipartisan cooperation.”
In a speech before the Republican caucus Wednesday, the new speaker said he would focus on fostering more drug-free, crime-free schools. Other priorities include lowering taxes, providing choices in health care and retirement plans, and maintaining a strong military defense.
Livingston said he would reach beyond partisan lines to meet these objectives — a stark contrast to his predecessor, Gingrich.
“We Republicans lose nothing by reaching out to the other side, to talk and listen and work in tandem with those who may share some of our goals and dreams,” Livingston said in the speech.
For the last four years, Livingston served as chairman of the Appropriations Committee, the committee that funds federal projects. As chairman, he earned a reputation as a fiscal conservative, shutting down proposals for pork-barrel spending and shaving the budget by $50 billion during his tenure.
“Livingston also has a reputation as a legislative craftsman,” said Steve Smith, a political science professor. Livingston is “a legislator who pays attention to legislative details and works well with members to build majority support for legislation,” he said.
Under Livingston, the committee approved an increase in maximum Pell Grant awards by $125 in October.
But Livingston’s vote record shows some discrepancies with bills that higher education lobbyists supported. While he voted for the Higher Education Act — which shapes federal funding and policy for the next five years — he also voted for the Rigg’s Amendment to the act; that addition would have withheld federal funding for schools that used affirmative action. The Rigg’s Amendment failed 171 to 249.
He also voted against an amendment to increase Pell Grant awards during the first two academic years of college to students who finish in the top 10 percent of their class. This amendment passed by a voice vote.
The new speaker earned his undergraduate degree in economics from Tulane University in New Orleans. He joined the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity and partook in excessive partying that led Tulane officials to request that he take a year off of school.
He then served in the Navy for two years before returning to Tulane, where he finished his degree and completed law school. He also graduated from the Loyola Institute of Politics in Ruston, La.
He will need to put his schooling to work in his new position, as Democrat Rep. Bruce Vento, whose district includes the St. Paul campus, cautioned:
“Livingston has a big challenge ahead of him with a smaller margin now.”