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For Education, Election a Matter Of Money

October 30, 2002 7 min read

Just as the Senate was wrestling with a major education bill last year, Democrats seized control of the chamber from Republicans when Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont bolted the gop fold and became an Independent.

By most accounts, that midstream switch didn’t make a big difference in the final “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001. The basic architecture of the legislation already had been negotiated on a bipartisan basis, and the Senate (as well as the House) approved the bill by a wide margin.

Seventeen months later, as the Nov. 5 midterm elections approach, control of one or both chambers of Congress again could change hands. The GOP has a slim majority in the House, and in the Senate, Democrats hold just a one-seat advantage.

Recent election analyses suggest it will be difficult at this point for Democrats to take the reins in the House. In the Senate, however, control could easily tip either way. But whatever happens, the majority margin is almost certain to be slim.

And the elections’ effect on federal education policy—with the possible exception of the education budget—is unlikely to be dramatic.

“I think, candidly, of all the areas out there, the majorities in Congress may have less impact on education,” said Norman J. Ornstein, a senior scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. “I think it’s partly because of [President] Bush’s sensitivity to the issue, and desire to try and keep his image as an ‘education president.’ ”

Mr. Ornstein suggested that the differences would likely be “at the margins.”

The distinctions between congressional Republicans and Democrats on education were far easier to discern several years ago. GOP leaders for the most part espoused a philosophy of minimal federal involvement, and Democrats generally looked to continually expand the government’s role.

But with President Bush leading his party to embrace a robust federal agenda for schools, the distinctions are subtler.

That said, congressional aides and others who closely track federal K-12 policy argue that majority status on Capitol Hill, even by slim margins, has an impact on some matters important to schools.

The most obvious is money.

It’s not that Republicans oppose upping the Department of Education’s budget. Even with the agency’s allowance more than doubling over the past six years, it’s almost impossible to find a GOP lawmaker who would say that.

But Democrats, in general, have a heartier appetite. Loss of their narrow majority in the Senate would likely mean less leverage for the kind of increases they would prefer.

“Should the Republicans have control of both houses of Congress, I don’t know that the drive for education resources would be as strong,” said William L. Taylor, the acting chairman of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, a Washington- based advocacy group.

Mr. Taylor also suggested that Democrats would have more power as a watchdog over the Bush administration’s implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act if they emerged still in control of at least one chamber.

David Schnittger, a spokesman for Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said a GOP Congress would continue to support more money for schools, but would keep a sharper focus on ensuring the “results” part of the federal formula.

“Our emphasis is on reform, while for some Democratic leaders, it’s more of an afterthought,” Mr. Schnittger contended. “The results focus that was brought to elementary and secondary education during this Congress through the No Child Left Behind Act will be carried over to things like special education and Head Start in the next Congress.”

The reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is one of the big items to watch next year. The House and Senate education committees have begun gearing up for that debate.

David E. Egnor, the policy director for the Council for Exceptional Children, an Arlington, Va.-based advocacy group, said those two panels appear to be seeking a bipartisan consensus.

“That’s a very good sign, and it may mean that regardless of which party ultimately maintains control of each house, that they have laid the groundwork for a successful reauthorization, where consensus can be reached,” he said.

On most special education issues, lobbyists say political affiliation may not be a major factor. But there are sure to be a few partisan splits.

For instance, some House Republicans are talking about including some sort of private-school-voucher provision in the IDEA. And the two parties generally diverge over whether to convert the federal budget for special education into a mandatory program that would lock in spending increases for years to come.

“We do believe that the Democrats are more committed to ... the issue of mandatory full funding,” Mr. Egnor said.

That issue for a time got wrapped into the No Child Left Behind debate last year. The Senate approved by voice vote a measure to make federal special education spending mandatory, but ultimately it was stripped from the bill during a House-Senate conference committee.

Even that provision, however, is not entirely partisan. Several Senate Republicans, including Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, were strong backers of making special education funding mandatory. And in the House, one critic of the stratagem is Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. But with President Bush and key GOP leaders in Congress opposed, some lobbyists argue that the move would gain a more sympathetic ear in a chamber controlled by Democrats.

Seeking 60 Votes

Overall, the No Child Left Behind debate seems to indicate that narrow party control has its limits. Sandy Kress, who served as the president’s chief education adviser during those negotiations, said he does not believe the Senate shift to Democrats changed much in the final analysis, given that Mr. Bush had already been working with both parties.

“Most of those negotiations would have pretty [much] followed the pattern they did,” he said. “I’m trying to think what issue would have been resolved differently. Would there have been private school choice? I don’t think so.”

Certainly, Senate rules limit the power of any party that lacks 60 votes, the magic number needed to avoid a filibuster and get most legislation through the chamber.

“The No Child Left Behind Act is a very good reminder,” said Dan Gerstein, a spokesman for Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D- Conn. “Any [major] shifts in policy, you’re going to need 60 votes, and nothing in this election is going to change that dynamic.”

“What is in play,” Mr. Gerstein said, “is who sets the agenda, the priority of committee markups, what bills come to the floor, ... how does legislation start out?”

Bruce Reed, the president of the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist group based in Washington, agreed that narrowly controlling the Senate has its limits.

But he cautioned that a crucial exception to the 60- vote rule is adjusting budget and tax policy through a process known as budget “reconciliation.” Such legislation cannot be filibustered, and it was the mechanism used by GOP leaders last year to enact tax cuts.

“The likely impacts on education from an all-Republican Congress would come in the budget,” said Mr. Reed, who was President Clinton’s domestic-policy adviser. “It’s not that Republicans would suddenly pass a voucher plan. It’s that they would have 50 votes to pass another set of tax cuts that will make it even harder to pay for more progress on education.”

“I think it matters hugely in a variety of ways” who controls Congress, said Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “The Republicans, if they regain control of both chambers, ... will be tempted to be more aggressive in a range of matters. So rather than see it in terms of how many dollars more or less [are spent] for K-12 education, [the issue is] what new kind of political dynamic do we have?”

But Vic Klatt, the former top education aide to Republicans on the House education committee, said there’s a long-standing dynamic on education policy that is hard to trump.

“At the end of the day, education bills ... that are signed are always bipartisan,” Mr. Klatt said. “That doesn’t mean that they’re unanimous. [But] they have to have a significant amount of support from the minority party. And I can’t see that changing, no matter who’s in charge.”

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