Working Towards A Mid-Term Election

As Congress moves nearer to the 2014 mid-term election, some effort is underway in both chambers to find common ground on less controversial issues. Maybe, they are trying to show the public that the “deliberative body,” Congress, does work when it puts the nation ahead of partisan posturing. Don’t misunderstand; the halls of Congress have not gotten friendlier or more cordial. The bottom line for both parties is control of each chamber. The Senate seems to be the one that the majority could change after the November mid-term elections.

In the House

In the last few weeks, the House Education & the Workforce Committee passed two bipartisan bills. One, the education research bill entitled Strengthening Education through Research Act (H.R. 4366) passed by a voice vote, no roll call necessary. And a charter school bill entitled Success and Opportunity through Quality Charters Act (H.R. 10), sailed through on a 36-3 vote - a bigger margin than a 2011 version of the same bill got.

Charter advocates are psyched. Representative Jared Polis (D-CO), who has founded two charter schools, said he was "thrilled." "This is the best version of the bill yet," he said. Nina Rees, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, urged the full House to take it up as soon as possible. Committee chairman John Kline (R-MN) said he'll press the Senate to take up the bill with the argument that because work on reauthorizing ESEA is stalled, Congress ought to "step out and do something" about the kids waiting to get into charter schools in the meantime.

These two bills could make it through both chambers before the end of the year.

Congressman Kline has also stated that he wants to finish the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act prior to the end of the 113th Congress. A bill has yet to be finalized, but the hearing process is completed. It is only a matter of time before the Republicans share their bill which will focus on contemporary student issues including student financial aid, data privacy, access to postsecondary education and several other related issues.

There is no movement to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It is likely that effort may be made in the 114th Congress.

Recently, the House passed its FY 2015 Budget Plan, better known as the Ryan Budget. Congressman Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) budget plan would cut $5 trillion in federal spending over the next decade, bringing the budget into balance by 2024. Democrats have asserted the GOP claim is off by tens of billions of dollars. A significant amount of the savings which this budget projects comes from reducing healthcare coverage and subsidies under the 2010 Affordable Care Act, (aka Obamacare). In addition, $700 billion-plus in savings comes from slashing Medicaid and other healthcare programs, while hundreds of billions in additional cuts come from food stamps, education and farm programs. The plan would also turn Medicare into a voucher program — Republicans call it “premium support” — for those who enroll in the program beginning in 2024.

The Democratically controlled Senate will not address a 2015 Budget plan, because the agreed upon bi-partisan long-term budget plan at the end of 2013 is operative.

In the Senate

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) has focused the time and attention of the Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions on early education with the “Strong Start for America's Children Act.” Interestingly, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the ranking member, has stated that he's working on his own pre-K proposal to stand against Sen. Harkin's. Alexander has not outlined exact details, but stated his legislation will be modeled after the Child Care and Development Block Grant. The senator estimated that, if all federal spending on early education were rolled into a block grant, Tennessee's share of the funds — roughly $440 million of overall federal spending of $22 billion — could expand the state-funded pre-K program from 18,000 to 109,000 children.

Senators Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and Susan Collins (R-MA) introduced "The School Food Modernization Act," two weeks ago to provide grants and loan assistance to schools for kitchen equipment and infrastructure improvements. The bill follows Pew Charitable Trusts' findings that 88 percent of school districts around the country need at least one piece of new kitchen equipment. Although nearly 90 percent of schools are meeting the updated school lunch standards, schools say implementation would be easier with better equipment. "Schools across the country are serving healthy foods that meet strong nutrition standards. But many must rely on costly and unsustainable workarounds because they lack the right tools and staff training," Jessica Donze Black, an expert with The Pew Charitable Trust's initiative on child nutrition, told Politico Pro Agriculture's Tarini Parti.

Other Legislation

A few pieces of major legislation may see floor activity before the end of this Congress.

Most recently, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and other senior House Republicans are telling donors and industry groups that they aim to pass immigration legislation this year, despite the reluctance of many Republicans to tackle the divisive issue before the November elections. Many lawmakers and activists have assumed the issue was off the table in an election year. But Mr. Boehner said at a Las Vegas fundraiser he was “hellbent on getting this done this year.” This could make the end of the session very interesting.

Another unfinished issue is the extension of unemployment benefits, which is being battled in both houses. Only a week or so ago, Nevada’s Governor Brian Sandoval (a Republican) came out in support of the Senate’s bill to extend the benefits. The House and Senate bills do differ. There is an expectation that something will be resolved before this session ends.

One other bill seems to be brewing with some bi-partisan support. It is on transportation infrastructure that has been co-written by two senators. It has received favorable reviews from both sides of the aisle and up Pennsylvania Avenue, but is quietly moving.

Given the upcoming mid-term elections, there are not many legislative days left on either chambers calendar to push through major legislation. Some of the bills described above could become law before the end of the session. Major decisions have to be made on appropriations for FY 2015. But with the election, it is more likely that there will be another continuing resolution. Though it should not difficult given the budget agreement made at the end of 2013 that dictates spending levels for the next several years.

So far the House Committee on Appropriations has passed on two of its 12 annual spending bills — Veterans Affairs, and daily operations of the Capitol building. All of the bills need to be completed by Sept. 30, 2014. Part of the problem is that the Congressional Budget Office is still completing the scoring of President Obama’s proposed FY 2015 Budget. This is used along with the 2013 Budget Agreement to help determine concrete allocations for appropriations. The budget caps are tight as a result of last year’s budget agreement. Therefore, there is not much wiggle room for additional spending.

Congressional Committee Musical Chairs

The November mid-term elections have already had an impact on Congressional membership. There have been a record number of retirements (not running for re-election) in both the House and Senate. Also, there are numerous primary fights underway for open seats and challenges to incumbents, especially in the Republican Party.

The retirements, primary challenges and the potential switch in the Senate’s majority, all add up to some significant changes in committee leadership and membership on both sides of the aisle. These along with the Republican term-limit policy will cause many committees to change chairs and ranking members.

We already know there will be upheaval in the leadership of the House and Senate Education authorizing committees when the 114th Congress convenes.

The two highest ranking Democrats are retiring — Senator Tom Harkin, who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP), and Congressman George Miller (D-CA), the ranking minority member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. Also, the leadership or ranking member positions on these committees in both chambers may also be affected due to the Republican term-limit rule.

Depending on who holds the majority in the Senate and House dictates who chairs a committee, as well as the ranking member. Party leadership determines chairs and ranking members, usually along seniority lines, but those steadfast rules have not been always followed in recent years.

Here are some of the real and potential changes:

  • With the retirement of Senator Harkin, the conventional wisdom is that Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) will be asked to be the chair (if the Democrats hold the majority in the Senate) or be the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Technically, next in line is Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), but she chairs Senate Appropriations and won’t give that up. Currently, she chairs the Senate Budget Committee. Her decision may change if the Democrats lose control of the Senate.
  • If the Republicans gain control of the Senate, it is likely that the Committee’s current ranking member, Senator Lamar Alexander would become chair. If not, he would remain the ranking member. However, it is possible that Senator Michael Enzi (R-WY) to again chair the HELP Committee since he has seniority.
  • In the House, the Education and the Workforce Committee has at chair limit rule. The current chair, John Kline, has reached six-years as chair. He will ask for a waiver to remain as chair. If it is not granted, then Virginia Foxx (R-NC) will become the chair of the Committee. It is unlikely that the Republicans will lose control of the House.
  • With George Miller’s retirement, the next in line to be ranking member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee is Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA). He has not been visibly active in the Committee, but that can change quickly when he takes on a leadership role. It is possible that the Democratic leadership could move someone onto the committee with more seniority, but it is unlikely.
  • Retirements in the House with an education interest include Howard McKeon (R-CA), Tom Petri (R-WI), Rush Holt (D-NJ) and Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY). Other changes may occur as a result of the mid-term elections in both the House and Senate where several members have difficult re-election campaigns.
  • Another interesting development is that the Congressional Black Caucus members could end up as the ranking Democrat on at least seven major House committees next year -- Education and the Workforce; Financial Services; Homeland Security; Judiciary; Oversight and Government Reform; Science, Space and Technology; and Veterans' Affairs.
  • Jockeying for chairmanships has already begun within the Republican Party given the term-limits rule. Two of the key committees involved are Government Oversight, and Ways and Means. Several are vying for the chair in each committee. The most visible battle includes Paul Ryan, who has expressed a strong interest in the Ways and Means chair. 

Nothing will be decided until January 2015, when the 114th Congress convenes. However, some of the mid-term election results will provide an initial indication of some committee leadership roles, especially if the Senate has a Republican majority. Other chairs and ranking members will be decided inside each party’s caucus, but some of the jockeying will be quite public and make for some interesting political theatre.