On November 3, voters dramatically changed the landscape in Washington. Republicans gained control of the House and although the Democrats retained control of the Senate their margin was reduced to 53-47. As this is being written, a few days before Thanksgiving, what we have can best be described as 535 piece puzzle with only the borders in place.
Clearly the major change will be in the House with new Republican committee and subcommittee chairs taking over. With a handful of seats still undecided the Republicans currently control the House by a margin of 242-190.
The post-election period is critical as the jockeying for assignments to committees and the selection of subcommittee chairs and ranking members takes place. Who fills these slots has a great bearing on what transpires the next two years. In addition, there is sentiment being expressed among some Republicans in the House that committees have become unwieldy because of their size. As a result, the number of subcommittees on some panels may be reduced.
Predictions as to who will end up where are speculative at best. It is somewhat like the start of training camp for a professional sports team. We generally know who the stars, or committee chairs and ranking members will be and where they’ll be playing. The supporting players, members with some seniority, will be fighting for key subcommittee leadership positions. And the freshmen, or rookies, will be looking to make an impression to secure a spot at the bottom of choice committees.
Despite all of these caveats, here is a best guess at the impact the election will have on three major issues of importance to historians.
1. Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) —Neither party is happy with the results of the most previous reauthorization of the education law, No Child Left Behind. The Obama administration has been aggressively pursuing educational reform in its first two years. The Department of Education has encouraged states to work together to create “voluntary” common core standards. The Administration has also pressed for greater teacher accountability, charter schools, giving greater flexibility to state and local officials. While these are all potential areas of common ground, Republicans are committed to reducing, as much as possible, federal intervention in education at the state and local level.
The continuation, in some form, of the Teaching American History grants program is uncertain. The White House has proposed consolidating 38 existing K–12 education programs into 11 new programs. Under the administration’s plan, grants for history education would now be part of a new program called “Effective Teaching and Learning for a Well-Rounded Education.” Teaching American History Grants would be consolidated into this new program and would no longer exist as a free-standing budget line item.
For the first session of Congress since the creation of the TAH program a decade ago, the late-Senator Robert C. Byrd will not be there to ensure the program receives robust funding. The position of the presumptive new Chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee John Kline (R-Minn.) on TAH is unclear. In addition, the chairmanship of the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education is vacant following the retirement of Representative Mike Castle (R-Del.). Representative Tom Petri (R-Wis.) is next in line, however he already holds a key subcommittee chairmanship on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
2. National Historical Publications & Records Commission (NHPRC) — As far back as the Reagan administration, Republicans have been trying to eliminate the NHPRC. Earlier this year, House Republicans asked the public to vote on their website for federal programs to eliminate and the NHPRC came out near the top. Republican members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee have blocked NHPRC reauthorization legislation in the House by threatening to offer amendments that would gut the program. Without an authorization, the NHPRC might be vulnerable to elimination.
3. Fiscal Year 2011 Appropriations — In October, Congress left town for the elections without passing a Fiscal year (FY) 2011 budget. The current short term continuing resolution (CR), which has provided the funds to keep the government operating, expires on December 3. Currently federal agencies are being funded at FY 2010 levels.
In December, while they still retain control in the House and have greater margins in the Senate, Democrats would like to either pass an omnibus budget bill that includes new FY 2011 funding levels, or an additional continuing resolution to keep the government funded through September 30, 2011. If a long-term CR is passed federal agencies would likely be funded at FY 2010 levels for the rest of FY 2011.
However, the Republican leadership would prefer to pass another temporary CR to fund the government into early-January when they take over the House. There is strong sentiment among the Republican leadership in both houses to attempt to roll back funding for FY 2011 to FY 2008 levels for discretionary non-defense spending.
Under such a scenario agencies such as the National Archives and National Endowment for the Humanities would be hard hit and the work that the historical and archival communities have made towards increasing funding for these agencies over the past few years would be lost.