What Can We Expect From Our Elected Officials?

Yes, the election is over. Yes, President Obama won a second term. And the face of Congress remains pretty much the same. Democrats continue to hold a majority in the Senate and Republicans hold the majority in the House. Though there was a good deal of publicly voiced discontent with the lack of action or dysfunction by Congress, its membership is pretty much the same people except for a few newly elected House and Senate members.

So what will change? What can change or is possible? What can we expect in the next seven weeks during the lame-duck Congress, in the first year of the 113th Congress and from the President in the next three years? Will it be more gridlock or can these elected officials learn how to work together despite ideological differences and the Tea Party lurking in the wings?

We are all breathing a sigh of relief that we don’t have to listen to or see any more ads about who or what to vote for or against. In the end, all the ads turned into white noise.

The jockeying and politics are already underway, beginning even before the election was over. But now it is very serious. It is very clear from remarks by the President, House Speaker Boehner and others that they must address deficit reduction, impending tax increases, sequestration and the fiscal cliff.

The positioning and posturing began the night the election was over. Everyone is staking out a position with some wiggle room. Congress reconvened for its lame-duck session on Nov. 13, and it is on notice to come up with some solutions. But will they listen, since they do have the option to kick the can, do a short-term fix and let the 113th Congress wrestle with the difficult decisions?

It is not entirely up to them. President Obama must put ideas on the table and be a part of serious negotiations. He called a meeting at the White House with Congressional leadership on Nov. 16 to begin the conversation to address the fiscal issues. In a very short time, we will know if an effort is made, or if everyone is stuck in the same position they were prior to the election, where no give and take is possible.

Deficit Reduction, Taxes and the Fiscal Cliff
Within 24 hours of Tuesday, Nov. 6, political positions had already being staked out. The picture is not one that bodes well for a compromise given what has been stated by the Republican Congressional Leadership and the President. One can say they have definitely different ideas and points of view. And the policy differences are endless, but there are a limited number of scenarios for how this will play out.

Both have stated they are willing to compromise and listen to a variety of proposals. But, Boehner and other Republicans have stated “no” to any tax increases to generate revenue, but rather do tax reform and generate revenue through economic growth. And the president says he is open, but he put down a marker for increasing taxes on the wealthiest citizens. Who will blink first?

The basic question being asked inside and outside the Beltway by the media, citizens and even elected officials: Can they come to a compromise that begins to address deficit reduction and the fiscal cliff, or will they just pass the buck to the 113th Congress when it comes into session in mid-January?

Americans anxiously await the answer. Remember, tied to deficit reduction and sequestration is the expiration of numerous tax cuts, including the Bush Tax Cuts and other tax items that will increase taxes on most Americans. This may be incentive enough to come to a compromise. Sequestration kicks in on Jan. 2, 2013 if nothing is done. That means over 1,000 programs will see budgets cut.

Some political cynics want no solution, to force the issue of deficit reduction. Others fear economic repercussions such as another recession. Therefore there seems to be no choice but to come up with a compromise to get the process of deficit reduction moving and tax reforms agreed upon. During the next six weeks we will have an answer.

There seem to be one of three scenarios that will occur prior to the end of the calendar year:

1. The President and Congress agree on the specifics to address deficit reduction over the next several years. This would include new revenue streams and tax reform. We shall see how they address the sticking point of raising taxes on the wealthiest and renew the Bush Tax Cuts for everyone else. The specifics will also speak to how entitlements will be changed or reformed.

2. The President and Congress agree to a short term fix that either delays sequestration, extends for a year the Bush Tax Cuts and a few other issues but, in general, kicks the can to the 113th Congress to address including tax reform and specific deficit reduction steps by cutting program budgets. Several Republicans are against this short-term approach.

3. The stalemate continues and we will have to wait for the 113th Congress to act. In the meantime, a second recession is on the horizon, the stock market drops precipitously, unemployment rises and the general public is furious but can do nothing. Each side blames the other, which solves nothing.

Education and Related Issues — The Next Steps
There will be some changes in Congressional committee assignments that will be finalized in January 2013, when the new Congress convenes. What is known is that Senator Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) will become the ranking member of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, replacing Senator Michael Enzi who is term limited out of the ranking position. Leadership remains the same for the House Education and Workforce Committee.

It is doubtful that any legislative action will be taken on the outstanding education and workforce legislation, such as reauthorization for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and Workforce Investment Act, during the lame duck session. One should plan on those two bills and the reauthorization of Perkins (Career and Technical Education), Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and possibly Higher Education Act to be discussed but not finalized during the 113th Congress. Congress must also address the Pell Grant short fall of about $7 billion and how to cope with the planned rise in interest rates for federally backed college student loans.

The latter two higher education issues could be the first two education issues to be addressed. Further delaying ESEA reauthorization, which is already five years overdue.

The key question on ESEA reauthorization: Is there pressure to do something? Many states requested and received waivers from certain requirements of No Child Left Behind by the U.S. Department of Education. Republicans in Congress have been very critical of Secretary Duncan’s use of the waivers. But if any pressure is going to come to bear to reauthorize the bill quickly, it will have to be from states and local districts to members of Congress.

There has been some inside the Beltway who believe that higher education will be the first legislation to be addressed by the 113th Congress, which would mean jumping ahead of other legislation that is overdue for reauthorization such as the Workforce Investment Act.

Don’t forget that sequestration is imminent if nothing is done. Two examples of cuts that will occur to programs if sequestration is a reality are: ESEA Title I would be cut $1.3 billion and special education cut $1.03 billion. In the case of education sequestration cuts to programs do not take place are until October 2013 except for Impact Aid. On average, the cuts will be 8.2 percent to education programs across the board.

Much more will come to light on the education legislative agenda of the President and 113th Congress once the fiscal cliff, tax reform, sequestration and deficit reduction are resolved. So you will just have to wait because time will tell.

Fritz Edelstein is a principal in Public Private Action, a consulting group. His work focuses on strategic government and constituent relations, business development strategy, advocacy research and policy analysis, strategic planning and resource development, and advocacy, outreach and public engagement. This work includes producing Fritzwire, the education Internet newsletter providing timely information on education and related issues. Read Fritzwire, Education’s Water Cooler, everyday to keep up with what is happening in education around the nation and in Washington, D.C. To subscribe write: [email protected].