Federal Dateline

An Energized Beginning for Congress

by Bruce Hunter

The 111th Congress is off and running.

Arne Duncan, the new secretary of education, had a confirmation hearing and a committee vote on his nomination before President Obama’s inauguration and confirmation by the whole Senate by the start of the inaugural balls.

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As if the quick action on Duncan’s confirmation wasn’t enough, Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., chair of the House Appropriations Committee, had his version of the Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Act (commonly called the stimulus package) out by Jan. 15. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was voted on in committee Jan. 21, and then the House Ways and Means Committee added tax provisions to the bill the following day so the whole House passed their version on Jan. 28. The Senate Appropriations and Finance committees reported their versions of the stimulus act on Jan. 27. (The tax language will add $20.4 billion to the Qualified Zone Academy Bonds, or QZABs, offering no-interest loans for new construction and renovations.)

The Senate followed with its version of the same bills. Some differences exist between the House and Senate bills, and the process has slowed. GOP senators have the votes to filibuster and force changes away from spending toward tax cuts. A compromise permitted the bill to pass on a somewhat bipartisan basis. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., blasted the education cuts in the compromise and promised to try to reinstate those cuts in conference. There are other differences. For example, the House has a 60-day timeline for getting funds to school districts while the Senate may permit a longer period to get funds to school districts. The differences set the stage for conferencing, with a goal of getting the bill to the president for his signature by mid-February.

The good news for AASA members is that the House and Senate should add billions directly to school district budgets and remove the pressure states are feeling to fund both Medicaid and education.

Collaboration Revived
I have been lamenting the lack of comity and willingness to work among members of Congress since the mid-1990s. The first weeks of 2009 provided the 111th Congress with an opportunity to return to the days when policy disagreements weren’t taken as personal attacks.

The stimulus added a provision extending the moratorium on the regulations eliminating Medicaid administrative and transportation claiming to June 30 of this year, by which time the Center for Medicaid Services should have had time to rewrite or retract the regulations. And the pressure states are feeling to fund both Medicaid and education will be alleviated by the increased share of Medicaid funding the federal government will pick up over the next two years — a $79 billion boost to state budgets in the House bill.

Other fast action in Congress saw the House and Senate pass a reauthorization of State Children’s Health Insurance Program, SCHIP, which had been vetoed three times last year, in the days before President Obama’s inauguration. Obama signed it in the second week of his administration.

The AASA Executive Committee members met on Capitol Hill on Jan. 15 with both Republican and Democratic staff from the House and Senate and with Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn. They received excellent insight into the plans and positions of key members of the House and Senate committees with responsibility for crafting federal education policy.

The fissures of the past were present in the discussions, but they were not the central story, as had been the case in the past decade. Of course, considerable interest was expressed over what might be happening with the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Staff for the House and Senate chairs, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said it actually could be completed this year. But staff for other members of the Senate and House education authorizing committees suggested it might take two to four years.

Uncertain Timing
So take your choice — this year or the next two to four. The uncertainty seemed to arise because of the importance of shoring up the economy as the top congressional priority.

Regardless, the action has been fast and furious in the first weeks of the new administration. Now we can hope Republicans and Democrats will work together to craft good policy to revitalize the partnership between the federal government and local public school districts.

Bruce Hunter is AASA associate executive director for advocacy and policy. E-mail: bhunter@aasa.org.