November 16 -- Activity in Congress is a study in contrasts in process with areas having high levels of action followed by sudden stops, while other areas are moving from event to event without completing any action. Yet completing a process seems to be escaping all. For education, and most other areas, the most important activity right now is that of the House-Senate Budget Joint Committee that is working on determining some type of agreement. This agreement is hoped to result in the funding of the government past January 15, 2013. There have been two formal meetings of this joint committee to date and no agreement likely before Thanksgiving.
Why is this agreement important? The budget would set the overall spending level, or allocation that will then be used by the appropriators to set specific line-by-line (program level) spending for this fiscal year. Without the allocation, the spending committees have no agreement on how much they have to spend.
The plan is for the budget committee to create the allocation by mid-December and the appropriators to have until mid-January to set the program spending levels. The expectation is that the budget committee will have difficulty meeting this target. One of the issues is how to manage sequestration. Under the current spending levels education (and the other non-defense areas) will not have a sequestration (this fiscal year) because we are already below the required spending levels ($91 billion below last year). But defense is still above the line to trigger a sequestration to just their area.
Because of the potential cut to defense, some in Congress want to transfer the cuts from defense to other areas. This would keep the overall spending levels at the same level. Other Members of Congress want to see sequestration go away. Still others want to see a grand compromise that will solve what is seeming to be a perpetual problem.
The likely result of the Congressional Joint Budget Committee process is going to likely be a short term removal of sequestration. The problem is who will be asked to cover the cost of this change? We don't have the answer to that question and we also don't know if the budget committee will create an allocation in a timely enough fashion to allow the appropriators the time they will need to build either an omnibus spending plan or a new continuing resolution before the pending deadline of mid-December.
But this isn't the only activity in Congress. Coming up this week is a house hearing on the Perkins Technical and Career Education Act. The House education committee and the Senate education committee are each still expecting more hearings on the Higher Education Act.
In addition, there was a major legislative introduction this past week. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), chair of the Senate HELP committee along with Senator Patti Murray (D-WA) joined Ranking House member of the education committee George Miller (D-CA) and Republican Tom H (R-NY) in introducing the Strong Start for America’s Children's Act. This measure would appropriate money to ensure every child living at 200% of poverty have access to a high quality program for four year olds. The definition of high quality includes a certified teacher and an effective curriculum. This measure will be the subject of a hearing in the Senate; but in addition the concept of early childhood education will be the subject of a hearing in the House education committee as they look at existing federal early childhood programs.