Washington Update: What's Still on the Table and What to Expect Next?

It’s December 2012, the last weeks of the 112th Congress, one of the most unproductive in history, and the end of President Obama’s first term. But as everyone is very well aware, several significant issues need to be addressed and resolved, if possible.

What’s Left on the Table
The fiscal cliff has been described and discussed in previous newsletters and articles. It is still first and foremost on the nation’s agenda and has overshadowed everything else. Negotiations continue behind the scenes with very little transparency. The political jockeying and posturing won’t stop until there is a deal, if there is one. And if there is none, then the blame game and finger pointing takes over — making for a very contentious city and inauguration, and a nation on the edge of its seat trying to figure out the economic implications.

Several members of congress have stated they anticipate singing Christmas carols from their offices with their staff, who have been told to cancel holiday plans. Cots are being set up for all-night sessions.

Public opinion polls indicate the need for a compromise and deal. Poll results state support for the extension of the Bush Tax Cuts except for the highest 2 percent. However, there is no one issue holding up a deal. It is more like an unwillingness to move towards some middle ground on several issues or waiting for the right moment to agree to something. Some of the key issues include the tax rate for the highest 2 percent of earners, the income level at which there is not tax cut, what to do, if anything, about Social Security and Medicare and the balance of revenue and budget cuts so not to fall off the cliff.

As of Sunday, Dec. 9, some movement on the tax issue was articulated by a few Republican senators. The bigger questions is: Will someone draft an agreeable package in the 11th hour, meaning Dec. 29, 30 or 31, that will satisfy the president, Speaker Boehner and selected members of both parties? A first-step agreement is possible before the end of the year. But what will be included in that agreement is unknown. It is most likely, that most of the real work to comprehensively address fiscal cliff will put in the laps of the 113th Congress.

Also pending is an extension of the debt ceiling, which has become very political since congress allowed the president to increase it the last time without their action. The president wants to continue that process but is meeting with some resistance from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. The other key outstanding legislative pieces include appropriations, Farm Bill and others tied to the fiscal cliff tax reform.

What to Expect
In the education and related-issues arena, several bills are way behind schedule for reauthorization. Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) wants to immediately take up reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA or aka NCLB), which stalled in the Senate during the 112th Congress. But also on the committee’s plate are the reauthorizations of the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), Higher Education Act, Perkins Act (Career and Technical Education) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

The reauthorization plate is no different in the House, except for the order of how each will be addressed. House Education and Workforce Chair, John Kline (R-Minn.) has stated he wants to reintroduce the ESEA reauthorization bill passed by his committee during the 112th Congress and have it through the House by June or July 2013. Kline has announced that he will hold hearings to begin to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA) sometime in late February or early March, as well as call for suggestions and recommendations from the field as to what should be included in the bill and what issues should be addressed. His hope is to get this bill drafted and out of committee by the end of the 113th first session.

Also, there is hope that included in the resolution of the fiscal cliff will be fixing the Pell Grant shortfall and the pending rise in the interest rate of federal student loans. If not, then the House committee will have to address them during the reauthorization process.

It should be noted that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has funded a series of organizations and groups to come up with recommendations and suggestions for the redesign of student financial aid, increase access to postsecondary education and improve the completion rate. This initiative is entitled “Reimagining Aid Design and Delivery Project.” White papers are in the process of being released and the discussion continues, which is very timely given Rep. Kline’s schedule for HEA reauthorization.

Changing Face of Congress
As a result of the 2012 elections, we will be seeing several changes in membership of committees in both houses that address education and related issues. There will be at least 10 new members on the House Education and Workforce Committee — five for each party. This will mean some significant hand holding and mentoring to get them up to speed, given the number of reauthorizations coming before the committee.

The Ranking Minority Member for the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee (HELP) will be Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) replacing Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), who was term limited from the position by Republican Senate rules. There will be a few new faces on the committee, too.

Of even greater interest is the rumor that Senator Harkin, who chairs the Senate HELP Committee, may not run for re-election in 2014. What does this mean for the committee’s legislative agenda for the first session of the 113th Congress? Who would become the chair as long as the Democrats hold the majority in the Senate?

Administration Personnel Changes
Zakiya Smith, who has been responsible for higher education issues on the White House Domestic Policy staff, is leaving to work at the Center for American Progress. The lead education person on the Domestic Policy team, Roberto Rodriquez, seems to be staying.

At the U.S. Department of Education, the Assistant Secretaries for Postsecondary Education, Civil Rights, Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, the General Counsel, the Director of the Office of Technology, and the lead person for Early Childhood Education are senior positions, which need to be filled after the inauguration. Everyone expects Secretary Arne Duncan to be staying for another four years, as is Under Secretary Martha Cantor, Assistant Deputy Secretary Jim Shelton, and Assistant Secretaries Deb Delisle and Brenda Dann-Messier.

More to come in the annual January overview and updates after the Inauguration.

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].