New President Must Work With Divided Congress

By Joetta L. Sack & Erik W. Robelen — November 08, 2000 6 min read

While the presidential race is too close to call, one thing appears certain for the education community after Tuesday’s elections: Whoever finally wins the White House will have to work with a closely divided Congress to pass several important school bills.

Republicans managed to narrowly retain control of both the House and the Senate, but Democrats won some significant Senate races, including victories in New York, Delaware, and Missouri. Those new senators could have an impact on education policy in the upcoming 107th Congress. As late as Wednesday morning, it remained unclear whether the Senate would be split 50-50 on party lines. Even under such a scenario, the GOP would likely retain power.

But before the new members are sworn in, the current lame-duck Congress must return to Washington to approve an as-yet-unfinished education budget for fiscal 2001, which began Oct. 1. Before adjourning for the elections, congressional negotiators had agreed on a tentative plan to give a record 21 percent spending increase to the U.S. Department of Education. But that could change in coming days, with Republicans, in the view of some observers, gaining new leverage in the waning days of the 106th Congress, thanks to retaining their control of the House and Senate for the incoming Congress.

As of Wednesday morning, observers were cautious in their predictions of how a new president and Congress will work together—or not.

“There’s one thing about it—nobody is going to come in with some crushing mandate, like [Republican nominee Gov. George W.] Bush for vouchers, because it isn’t there,” said Bruce Hunter, the chief lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators. It remains an open question, he added, whether the members can work together and with the White House. “If they don’t, it’ll be two years of gridlock,” Mr. Hunter said.

Meanwhile, John F. Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy, sounded concerns for Democrats if the Texas governor prevails over the Democratic nominee, Vice President Al Gore.

“If Bush wins, the only lever of power in the Democrats’ hands is the filibuster in the Senate,” said Mr. Jennings, a former aide to Democrats on the House education committee. “The Republicans have almost a free hand to rewrite the federal role in education.”

At press time, the fate of the presidential race lay with Florida, where officials are recounting votes and tallying absentee ballots. Regardless of the outcome of the presidential race, the narrow margin of victory for whoever wins and the partisan split in the new Congress mean the incoming president will face challenges in turning his education proposals into law.

In many ways, Mr. Bush’s plans do not differ dramatically from the ideas of Mr. Gore. During the campaign, both candidates called for more accountability in schools and better training and professional development for teachers. They both made a priority of visiting dozens of schools along the campaign trail as well.

Gov. Bush has also proposed a plan that seeks to instill more accountability while retaining local control and adding flexibility. He wants to mandate tests in mathematics and reading in grades 3 to 8 for students in Title I schools.

But Mr. Bush has said he supports the creation of federally financed vouchers for students in chronically failing schools receiving Title I aid—a stand for which Mr. Gore frequently attacked him. Mr. Gore had also charged that the governor would spend more on tax cuts for the wealthy than on education. Mr. Bush has proposed spending $47 billion over 10 years on federal funding for new and expanded education programs.

Vice President Gore, meanwhile, wants to continue many of President Clinton’s initiatives, such as providing more federal funds to hire 100,000 new teachers to reduce class sizes, pay interest on school construction bonds, and provide more higher education loans and grants. He has proposed a plan totaling at least $115 billion over the next 10 years for significant increases in existing federal programs, plus a new universal preschool plan.

The New Congress

In addition to the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the massive bill that contains most of the federal K-12 programs, the new Congress is set to consider the reauthorization of the Education Department’s research programs and, most likely, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The elections did not provide any shake-ups on the House and Senate education committees. Five members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee were up for re-election— three Republicans and two Democrats, including Chairman James M. Jeffords of Vermont and ranking Democrat Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts—and they all prevailed handily.

At press time, Republicans had claimed 220 seats in the new House, while Democrats had 211. Independents took two seats, and the outcomes of two House races had yet to be announced. Voters had only definitively ousted only one member of the House education committee in the general elections, though the chairman, Rep. Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, and the ranking Democrat, Rep. William L. Clay of Missouri, are retiring. Delegate Carlos A. Romero-Barcelo, a Democrat from Puerto Rico, lost his re-election bid. As a delegate, Mr. Romero-Barcelo can vote on committee matters, but not on the House floor. And, Rep. Rush D. Holt, D-N.J., was in a race that was too close to call Wednesday morning. Mr. Holt’s re-election bid became controversial after Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley was criticized for traveling to the congressman’s district twice this year for joint appearances with him.

In addition, Rep. Matthew G. Martinez of California lost in the Democratic primary earlier this year. Mr. Martinez later switched his party affiliation and became a Republican.

Rep. Peter Hoekstra, the Michigan Republican who chairs the House education panel’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, said that with the GOP retaining control of the House, he expects committee Republicans to continue in the policy direction they pursued this year.

“I see us working on the agenda we worked on in the [106th] Congress,” Mr. Hoekstra said. “More local authority and more local flexibility ... I don’t see any radical shift in the education direction.” However, like others, he emphasized that the identity of the incoming president will make a dramatic difference.

If Mr. Bush, who has a slim lead in the pivotal state of Florida, is ultimately declared the presidential winner, “that puts tremendous pressure on the other side to take a look at what the president is proposing,” Mr. Hoekstra argued. “That really changes what you can and can’t get done.”

On the House side, too, some leadership changes are sure to affect the Education and the Workforce Committee. On the minority-party side, Rep. George Miller of California, a lawmaker known for his interest in education issues, is expected to become the ranking Democrat.

But there could be competition for the panel’s chairmanship. Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., recently outlined the process for selecting committee chairmen, who will have to make their case in early December before a new steering committee. Rep. Hoekstra said he is planning to seek the post. Others expected to also pursue the education chairmanship include Reps. Tom Petri of Wisconsin, the next in line in terms of seniority on the committee, and John A. Boehner of Ohio, who previously held a Republican leadership post in the House.

As to the possibility of a 50-50 split in the Senate, Republicans would still likely retain control because if Gov. Bush wins the White House, Vice President Richard B. Cheney would cast tie-breaking votes in the chamber. If, on the other hand, Mr. Gore were to win, his running-mate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., would relinquish his seat, and Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland, a Republican, would almost certainly name a Republican replacement.