Congressional Control Up for Grabs
With the race for the White House in high gear, some education advocates are beginning to turn their attention to an important political contest operating under the presidential radar screen: the battle for Congress. Democrats and Republicans are waging a fierce war for control of the House of Representatives, where the GOP has a slender six-seat majority among 435 legislators. Republicans have a more comfortable 54-46 advantage in the Senate, but Democrats are making a run at gains in that chamber as well. All 435 seats in the House and a third of the Senate seats are up for re-election this fall.
This race also has increased importance for African American lawmakers, since at least three Congressional Black Caucus members could claim the chairmanships of key committees if the Democrats win back Congress. But others note that even a Democratic House victory will not undo six years of Republican leadership that featured moderate funding growth but an increased emphasis on accountability.
“We came in and wanted to do things differently,” says Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., the only African American Republican in the House. Watts cites tax relief and a budget surplus among chief GOP accomplishments during the past five years, yet education funds also have increased — something that many analysts may not have predicted after the House went Republican in 1995.
But Democratic partisans are equally confident that only with a change in leadership can America truly expand educational opportunity — and help Black colleges and other minority-serving programs. Many House Republicans “continue to question why HBCUs are still in existence, let alone why the federal government should be providing support to them,” says Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Here is a breakdown of three key trends as the two parties battle for control of the House and Senate this fall:
n Philosophy: Republican education debates usually begin with a discussion of school vouchers to help poor children, lobbyists say. Tax relief also enters into most talks about college costs. But these arguments often don’t carry much value with education groups, most of which want to expand support for existing, direct-service programs.
“There are clear political divisions between Republicans and Democrats on the issue of education reform,” says J. Noah Brown,
federal relations director for the Association of Community College Trustees. A Democratic victory in the House could move vouchers to the back burner, while a Republican win would keep the issue out front. Some also wonder how Clinton’s favorite initiatives — from class-size reduction to the Gaining Early Access and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs — may fare under a GOP Congress once he leaves the scene. “I don’t know if some of these have a future [after Clinton],” one college access expert said.
n Retirements: A wave of voluntary departures will leave the House with fewer education experts regardless of which party leads Congress. Those leaving the scene include Rep. William Goodling, R-Pa., chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. A moderate conservative, Goodling has pushed for increases in some education programs while also trying to promote accountability and increased monitoring of federal education practices.
Educators also will lose a pivotal advocate in Rep. William Clay, D-Mo., a senior Congressional Black Caucus member and the top Democrat on the Education and the Workforce panel. Clay has championed the cause of
HBCUs, TRIO programs, student financial aid and K-12 education reform, among other priorities.
Another less-publicized but equally important departure is the retirement of Rep. John Porter, R-Ill., a moderate Republican who chaired the House appropriations subcommittee on education. Porter and his staff had significant input into every education-spending bill during the past five years, and he has won kudos from many educators for his efforts to raise education spending while still adhering to overall Republican budget goals.
“Regardless of the election outcome, there will be major leadership changes,” says Brown of the ACCT. “There are some people [leaving] who’ve been there a long time.”
n Black Caucus outlook: Congress has 39 African American members, and at least three are likely to move up to coveted committee chairmanships with a Democratic victory in the House. For colleges, one critical change may involve Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., a veteran Black Caucus member who would take over the Ways and Means Committee. That panel writes all tax-related bills, including any that would use the tax code to help families better afford college.
One issue likely to surface before Ways and Means next year is a College Opportunity Tax Cut, which could give families a 28 percent tax credit on the first $10,000 of tuition and fees. The plan has received endorsements from the White House and many lawmakers.
Also, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., would take over the House Judiciary Committee, which considers high-profile issues such as affirmative action and hate crime legislation. Conyers would replace Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., who led impeachment hearings against President Clinton. The third African American chairman may be Rep. Julian Dixon, D-Calif., who would be in line to take over as leader of the Select Intelligence Committee. The party that controls the House would select committee leaders soon after the November election.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com