After passing a debt-limit and deficit reduction package in the 11th hour with the Budget Control Act, the U.S. Congress concluded a tense and high-stakes summer session in which little legislative activity occurred other than the debate over raising the debt ceiling and deficit reduction. 

Debt Limit and Deficit Reduction

On August 2, the president signed a bill into law that raised the debt limit, an arbitrary cap which restricts the amount of money the U.S. Treasury can borrow to pay off funds previously spent by Congress, in concert with a two-step process to cut the federal deficit by roughly $2.1 trillion over 10 years. Central to the bill was debate over federal Pell Grants, loans to students with financial need to enroll in higher education. The compromise legislation passed by Congress and signed into law by the president increased total funding for Pell Grants by $17 billion. At the same time, the legislation restricts the ability of graduate students to take out other federal student loans and prevents the U.S. Secretary of Education from incentivizing on-time repayment of student loans through loan forgiveness programs.

Social Security Offsets

The Social Security Fairness Act, introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Howard McKeon (R-California) seeks to eliminate both the Government Pension Offset (GPO) and Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) programs which together reduce Social Security benefits and spousal benefits for former government employees who receive government pensions. Although the legislation has garnered a significant number of cosponsors since its introduction (108 members have signed on in support of the bill), it has yet to see any legislative activity in Congress. The Senate has yet to introduce a similar bill.

ESEA Reauthorization

Those awaiting the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act will have to wait longer, as a version making its way through the early stages of the Senate has stalled in the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. Chairman of the committee, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), has stated publicly that ongoing negotiations with the ranking Republican member, Sen. Michael Enzi (R-Wyoming), are progressing but that they are still caught up on issues of accountability and comparability of schools and school systems. Chairman Harkin is first seeking a bipartisan bill that has an increased chance of passing the Republican-controlled House. He has yet to set a date for his committee to begin consideration of such a plan, pending these negotiations.

Influential Senator and former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) will likely have to approve any reauthorization plan for it to gain Republican support. In a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Alexander stated that the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) should begin offering incentives for states and districts to use student achievement data in measuring teacher effectiveness, rather than making such actions mandatory as proposed by the president.

In the meantime, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has announced his intent to grant waivers from NCLB requirements under certain conditions. Details are expected this fall and will be reported via the TCTA website and eUpdates.

USDE Funding

At the start of the August congressional recess, neither chamber of Congress had passed the annual appropriations bill which funds the USDE. The House of Representatives failed to hold a subcommittee hearing on the bill, while the Senate did hold its hearing in late July after having previously postponed consideration. Both bills remain in committee.

With members of Congress spending the month of August at home in their congressional districts, all congressional appropriations have been pushed to September for action and approval. As the October 1 deadline for the beginning of fiscal year 2012 quickly approaches, it is likely that Congress will entertain an omnibus appropriations bill to fund multiple departments, or utilize short-term spending bills known as continuing resolutions (CRs) most recently seen in the FY 2011 budget battles earlier this year.

Race to the Top Funding

Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently announced the Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge (ELC) program, and invited declarations of intent from states that wish to apply for these grants. The ELC program seeks to close the kindergarten-readiness gap of high-need children and improve the quality of early childhood learning as an investment for future learning. So far, 36 states have declared intent to apply for these $50-$100 million grants. Texas has not declared such intent, but may still choose to do so under competition rules.

This article was prepared by Van Scoyoc Associates, TCTA’s lobby team in Washington, D.C., with extensive experience with education-related committees at the Capitol and in executive branch agencies.