Before the midterm elections, Democrats led the House with a majority of seats—255, to be exact. When the new Congress convenes in January, the new Republican majority will lead with at least 239 seats (as of today, 11 races haven’t been called definitively). Republican candidates picked up 60 seats in the House by running on a nearly universal message of anti-incumbency and reform, particularly in regards to federal spending.

Meanwhile in the Senate, Republicans closed the narrow Democratic majority to 51-46 (with three races in a toss-up) without taking control. As a more deliberative and compromising body than the House, this will make passage of politically challenging bills more difficult, but might encourage the two parties to collaborate.

What Does It All Mean?

Many of the newly elected legislators came by their victories promising to reform Washington—specifically regarding spending and taxes. Unlike many state legislatures, the federal government is not required to balance its annual budget and can—and frequently does—pass so-called “emergency” spending bills that do not apply to congressional budgetary rules.

Few would argue Washington needs less oversight and accountability in regards to federal spending. For instance, Congress has failed to pass both a budget and all 12 appropriations bills for any fiscal year—arguably the most important task on a legislator’s job description—in more than a decade. But the same reform-minded legislators planning to tighten Congress’ fiscal britches have also stated plainly that spending in the areas of defense, veterans’ affairs, and seniors will be off-limits. In other words, only the spending that doesn’t encompass the departments of Defense, State, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs, not to mention mandatory Medicare and Social Security spending, is ripe for spending reductions. (This chart helps illustrate how few programs would be left to “reduce” once defense and mandatory programs are removed from the equation.)

So, what does that mean? In short, education funding and other nondefense-related discretionary spending is where Congress will look first to find spending cuts in 2011 and beyond.

Will the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reauthorization happen in 2011 or won’t it? The truth is we just don’t know yet. But signs seem to be pointing to it not happening. President Obama and Secretary Duncan have stated their interest in completing reauthorization in early 2011; however, that assumes the House, Senate, and the White House can come to compromise on this major policy overhaul.

As noted above, funding for all nondefense, discretionary programs (like education) are going to face challenges in the coming years. It would be nearly impossible to pass an ESEA reauthorization that wouldn’t result in a call for an overall increase in federal education funding. Instead, the new (presumptive) education chairman on the House education committee, Rep. John Kline (MN), might attempt to make “tweaks” to the underlying law that reflect Republicans priorities. In a press release issued today, Kline emphasized his interest in tackling “education reform that restores local control, empowers parents, lets teachers teach, and protects taxpayers.” Some of these interests overlap with the president’s education reform proposals, but there are great discrepancies, as well.

Both the House and the Senate will begin shuffling legislators’ committee assignments in the coming weeks and hold internal elections for chairmanships and leadership positions. This means we’ll see many new faces on the education committees and on key appropriations subcommittees dealing with education funding. NAESP will keep you posted as committee and leadership positions are filled. In the meantime, please reach out to your legislators and introduce yourself as a resource for issues related to education using NAESP’s Legislative Action Center!

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