Washington Update: Where Do Things Stand?

Chaos in the House

Since my last piece several things have happened in Congress, and very little has really moved in Congress.

What most of you are already aware of is the chaos within the House Republican Conference. John Boehner (R-OH) announced his resignation as Speaker of the House beginning Oct. 30, as well as his resignation as a member of Congress. To put it simply he was fed up with the very conservative faction of House Republicans. The Freedom Caucus (approximately 40 Republican House members) made his job very difficult. He also had a seminal event in his life. Boehner was able to have the Pope speak before Congress during his tenure as well as have a personal meeting with him. For Boehner this was one of the most, if not the, special moments in his life that gave him an enormous amount of pride and satisfaction. One could say this was the icing on the cake for one’s career. A day later he announced his resignation. However, Boehner is now staying on until the next speaker is elected which is currently scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 29.

The consensus is that House Republicans are in an historic state of chaos, torn between at least two ideological approaches on how the House should be governed and the direction the country should be taking. This includes significant differences in the legislative agenda and priorities including several key votes in the last weeks of the session prior to Christmas.

Trent Lott, former Republican Senator from Mississippi, characterized it saying, "Contempt for compromise has undermined the Republicans' drive to prove that they can actually govern. This “hell-no” caucus — the degree of purity that they're looking for doesn't exist."

Republicans have been at war with each other. One year after a major victory at the polls, the party is in complete disarray — "on the verge of ceasing to function as a national political party," wrote The Washington Post's Karen Tumulty. “The key battle line is drawn between about 40 tea party-aligned lawmakers and the more moderate establishment. Those tea party lawmakers, known as the House Freedom Caucus, are frustrated that Republicans haven't been able to undo President Obama's agenda and are now staking out demands their leaders can't possibly deliver on, such as passing a spending bill that doesn't fund Planned Parenthood.”

Can the Chaos end?

The simple answer is, it depends. The first step is to regain a semblance of order within the House Republican Conference. This requires the selection of a Speaker of the House who is acceptable to a significant majority including many in the Freedom Caucus, and then, the election of other key leadership positions. The key is if they can trust the individual and work with him/her.

The Republican establishment has held back any public display of affection for Paul Ryan (R-WI) for speaker would be his kiss of death for his effort to become speaker. Also, some conservative knives are still out for Ryan given his previous position on immigration.

During the Congressional recess (Congress returned on Oct. 20), Ryan strongly considered running for the Speaker’s job as long as several conditions were met. On Thursday, Oct. 22, Paul Ryan formally declared his candidacy for House speaker saying, “I am ready and eager to be our speaker.”

He did so after consolidating support from across the Republican conference. The onetime GOP vice presidential nominee announced his candidacy in a letter to colleagues. Prior to the announcement, Ryan said during a caucus meeting that he was willing to step into the speaker’s role, ending weeks of GOP leadership turmoil, as long as disparate factions moved in the coming days to support him.

His decision depended on what assurances of support he would win from Republican conservative hard-liners. Before entering the evening meeting, Ryan met privately with leaders of the House Freedom Caucus, the group that helped push Speaker John A. Boehner out of his post and derailed Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s (R-CA) bid to succeed him. Ryan made clear he would need firm support from key groups by week’s end to move forward.

The terms Ryan set out largely comported with advice he had received publicly and privately from eminent voices inside the Republican Party.

Right now, Ryan has a “fragile marriage” with the Freedom Caucus. Difficult talks on decentralizing power from his own office will come early in his speakership. One could say that the two sides have reached a “temporary détente” that will allow Paul to become Speaker under most of the terms he set.

The Freedom Caucus House members pushed for a suite of rules changes, to overhaul of the party’s internal steering committee and a more open process for considering legislation. Ryan also stated in his latest remarks that some of the House rules need to be revised. Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC), a Freedom Caucus member, expressed measured support for Ryan as speaker, He has said Ryan could not expect to unify Republicans without making some concessions.

However, Ryan is not a shoe-in, nor is he the only person running for speaker. Since he did not get a supermajority from the Freedom Caucus, Ryan did not get an endorsement, but he did get a nod from more than a majority of the caucus. Others who have said “hell no” to Ryan includes:

  • Tim Huelskamp (R-KS) reiterated his support for Rep. Daniel Webster (R-FL) to the Wall Street Journal.
  • Steve King (R-IA) wrote an op-ed saying he still supports Webster for Conservative Review.
  • Paul Gosar (R-AZ), backing Webster, told my colleagues that Ryan is too Type A.

There are probably several more, including r and Jody Hice (R-GA), who are not voting for Ryan. No one is sure who else will throw their hat into the ring for Speaker from the Freedom Caucus, but some who have expressed interest include Webster and Bill Flores (R-TX).

An option raised earlier was a non-member of Congress taking the gavel. Nothing in the House rules requires that the Speaker be a member of the body. Given this nuance several non-members have voiced an interest as well as a few current House members. The three current non-members being mentioned are Newt Gingrich, J.J. Watts, and Dick Cheney. This does not seem to be considered at all.

The other piece of the puzzle is who else is going to be selected to be a part of the House Republican leadership. Most likely there will be some shuffling of committee chairmanships, which is sticking point of the Freedom Caucus?

The answer to these questions is: we will have to wait and see what the Republican Conference does and what the reaction is to who are the winners.

Countdown at the end of the Session

Congress has a great deal of work to be finished before the end of the 1st Session of the 114th Congress, which occurs on Dec. 31. That translates to less than 21 legislative days left on the calendar. It is a jammed packed schedule. They face several looming deadlines, which have been complicated by the Speaker battle. In essence, almost everything on Congress’ to-do list is at a standstill or at least on the back burner until the speakership is resolved.

This includes keeping the government open; raising the debt ceiling; funding our highways, roads and bridges. So the Republican majority must figure itself out before anything can move forward.

The specific deadlines facing this Congress are:

  • National Highway Trust Fund runs out on Oct. 29.
  • Debt ceiling needs to be renewed by Nov. 5 or the government will be unable to pay its bills.
  • Federal budget expires and the government must shut down by midnight Dec. 11, and no votes are scheduled on that day.

These translate to the following number of legislative days left on the calendar as of Monday, Oct. 26.

  • 4 days left until Oct. 29, when the National Highway Trust Fund runs out of money and authorization
  • 4 days left until Boehner resigns from Congress
  • 6 days left to extend the debt ceiling or the U.S. can not borrow money
  • 21 days left until the federal budget expires and the government must shut down if there is no extension.

What we do know is that Congress always takes a recess around the holiday season, which is very close to the Dec. 11 date. But, yes, Congress can add legislative days before the holiday recess or delay the recess to complete unfinished business.

Speaker John Boehner has indicated that he is interested in moving the debt-ceiling bill soon for a vote and to resolve the thorny issue for his successor. Also, the Congressional Budget Office has come out and said it must be done before the deadline.

Where Does Education Fit into This Calendar?

This is a tough call because the calendar is very full and includes very few legislative days. However, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) continues to push hard to finish the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (aka NCLB) before year’s end. Also, the conference committee has been created and chaired by Rep. John Kline(R-MN). Unfortunately, no conferees have yet to be appointed yet.

Since each house has passed their version of a reauthorization bill, there have been informal discussions amongst the staff and clearly some conversations, though unofficial, between the committee leadership of the two authorizing committees. All of these are intended to find out where there is common ground and identify the outstanding differences between the two bills that have to be addressed in the conference. None of the staff are talking where things stand or what progress has been made.

The amount of time available to the Conference Committee and a floor vote during this session is much shorter due to how long it has taken to determine who the next speaker will be. There is still a chance with the limited number of legislative days left on the session’s calendar for the bill to become law.

Several factors are behind my reason to say this. First, legacy means a great deal and Congressman Kline, who chairs the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, and is not running for re-election. Second, Senator Alexander is putting pressure to members to come to closure and get a final bill. Also, he plans to introduce legislation to reauthorize the Higher Education Act. Third, everyone wants a victory going into an election year to show Congress can work. And fourth everyone on both sides of the aisle want to replace No Child Left Behind, but the details are what matters to pass the bill.

In the end, it still has a chance in the waning hours of this session, so everyone will just have to hold his or her breath and wait. Maybe better news will be available in November, as one sees progress on the four key matters — House Republican leadership battle, the budget, debt ceiling and transportation bill.

The Beginning of the Changing of the Guard

Secretary Duncan has resigned as of Dec. 31. He is hoping that the ESEA reauthorization will be completed by then. The acting secretary will be John King who at present is performing the duties of the deputy secretary.

There are less than 15 months left during the Obama presidency. Many political appointees at Education and other agencies are beginning to (if they haven’t already) leave for other jobs. Thus, many career civil servants will be or are placed in acting positions and will not make critical policy decisions. They will be caretakers until a new president is elected and the transition occurs between November 2015 and mid-January 2016. In most cases, when one holds a temporary position they are unlikely to change course or make a critical decision unless it is part of the normal routine in managing programs and grants. No extraordinary actions will be taken.

So expect more of a holding pattern at the Department of Education, as well as other agencies, except in the case there is a reauthorization of ESEA. Then, the wheels will be put into motion to begin analyzing the legislation and drafting the appropriate proposed regulations.

The Presidential Race

Though no nominees have been selected by either party and won’t be until late summer of 2016, education has not been a topic discussed very often in the debates and by individual candidates on the campaign trail. All of the Republicans have pretty much railed against the Common Core, while the Democrats favor it. The hot topic has been the proposals around paying for postsecondary education and student debt. Both sides have different positions and proposals. One can expect this issue to be an election issues.

In conclusion

Yes, there is chaos in Congress, especially in the House. Ryan as Speaker will help reduce the chaos and try to work cooperatively across the aisle.

Several time sensitive votes need to take place over the last few days left in the session. If they are not addressed on time, there would be several very bad consequences and may have an impact on the 2016 elections for President and Congress.

There are also other key pieces of legislation hanging by a thread and waiting to see if there is room on the calendar to be debated and voted. The big question: Is there enough time left to finish a good portion of the important business began during this session?

We all will have to just wait and see as the clock ticks toward the end of the 1st Session of the 114th Congress.