Education a Priority for Some Freshmen in Congress

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As the new crop of members of the House and Senate begin to find their footing in the 109th Congress, those with an interest in education say they want to do everything from push for tax credits for private school tuition to tinker with the No Child Left Behind Act.

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Read the accompanying story, “The New Congress”

The newcomers run the gamut from political greenhorns to experienced elected officials. But they all have one thing in common: They want to have an impact.

The House has 41 freshman members, and the Senate has nine. As they await their committee assignments, wandering through the maze that is the U.S. Capitol and scrounging for office furniture in temporary spaces, most of them are also thinking about what they want to accomplish in the next two or six years in Washington.

When it comes to education, there are a handful of new members to keep an eye on who have a particular interest or background in the field.

In the new Congress, they’ll be dealing with a host of education issues, including reauthorizations of the main federal laws on higher education, vocational education, and the Head Start preschool program. They’ll likely also address President Bush’s proposals to expand the accountability and testing requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act at the high school level.

Most congressional novices tend to take a watch-and-learn approach to their new roles, said Vic Klatt, a lobbyist at Van Scoyoc Associates in Washington and a former aide to Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

“For the most part, it seems like they hang back and try to get a handle on how things work before really diving into it,” he said.

Robert Botsch, a professor of political science at the University of South Carolina-Aiken, uses a classic formulation to describe two different roles that he sees newcomers try to play: the workhorse or the showhorse.

“Some people come in and play a showboat role, where they expect to do a lot of big things,” he said. “Others bide their time, get on a good committee, build expertise, and don’t go public with a lot of big proposals for the first term or so.”

Selling New Ideas

But in the House and, in particular, the Senate, where longevity is often synonymous with power, can new members have an impact when it comes to education legislation? It’s tough, but sometimes they can, political observers say.

Those who have real-world experience in schools, on school boards, or on state legislative education committees tend to have more credibility and a depth of background their fellow neophytes don’t. For example Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, was the chairman of the state school board for three years before being first elected to the House and then, last November, to the Senate.

“If a member has special expertise in education, he has a chance to hit the ground running,” Mr. Klatt said.

Drawing on Background

Also, a close relationship with powerful people in congressional leadership positions or insiders’ knowledge of the way sometimes-Byzantine Washington works can help new members ensure that their voices are heard. New Rep. Dan Boren, an Oklahoma Democrat, comes from a family that intimately knows the ways of Washington: His father was a senator, and his grandfather was a House member.

Even without such an ancestry, Sen. Jim DeMint, a Republican from South Carolina who served three terms in the House, said he believes it will be easier for him to have an early impact in the Senate than it was for him as a House freshman.

“The longer people are there [in the Senate], the more cautious they are and the more content they are to let things happen over a longer time,” he said. “I haven’t found a whole lot of competition if you want to sell a new idea.”

PHOTO: President Bush speaks to freshman members of Congress at the White House on Jan. 3. There are 41 new members in the House and nine in the Senate.
—Alex Wong/Getty Images

Vol. 24, Issue 20, Pages 28, 30

Published in Print: January 26, 2005, as Education a Priority for Some Freshmen in Congress
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