Does Washington Still Work?

Congress is on a five-week recess that began on Aug. 1 and returns on Sept. 8. Don't blame them for taking the time off; they are legally required to do so.

Yes, they are off campaigning for himself or herself or someone else, as well as taking a vacation. Many would question whether they deserve it, given the number of critical issues left unresolved or unfinished. On the other hand, a few necessary pieces of legislation were addressed and passed in June and July by both houses and signed by the president. The president also planned to take a two-week vacation beginning on Aug. 9.

Historically, legislative inaction on the part of Congress is not new. Maybe our memories are short, but according to www.govtrack.us, there were a larger number of bills passed by the House and unaddressed by the Senate in the 110th and 1111th Congress than the current 113th Congress. (Note: Each Congressional session last two years.) Much of what occurs in each house of Congress is based on which party is in control.

So what is the good news?

Congress passed with bipartisan support The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. It came as a surprise to many, but not to those who toiled long and hard for many years to update our workforce and employment statute. This was a major accomplishment that had few detractors. Definitely a major victory for all of Congress since other recent attempts failed miserably.

Two other necessary and important pieces of legislation were completed and passed in the last days of July. One that was desperately needed due to the Veterans Administration scandal was legislation to overhaul the Department of Veterans Affairs. It is a $16.3-billion funding to improve and reform the agency's policy and practices, including hiring of more physicians.

The second was the extension of the Highway Trust Fund, which was running out of money. Without an extension, the Department of Transportation would cut reimbursements to states for highway projects. An extension was passed through May 2015.

Even though there was action on some legislation in each chamber, few were completed and even some were introduced as bipartisan bills. These will be discussed later. It is more important to mention what was left unfinished. Two issues left on the table, and it is not clear if they will be addressed prior to the mid-term elections, or at all before a new Congress in January, are immigration reform and FY-2015 appropriations to fund the government after Sept. 30, 2014.

Given mid-term elections are scheduled for Nov. 4, it is doubtful that any agreement on funding will be reached before then. Conventional Wisdom is FY-2015 funding will be in the form of a continuing resolution. But it will depend on the composition of the new 114th Congress as to whether an agreement can be reached on appropriations for FY 2015.

The ongoing sticky and politically sensitive issue is immigration reform. The issue is not being addressed. Unfortunately, positions have been staked out that are at polar opposites. There has been too much hyperbole and posturing, and not enough roll up your sleeves hard work to come up with a reasonable solution. Political positions have overtaken common sense and caring about this very human issue and problem. With members on recess, the positions may harden even more and make it impossible to find common ground.

During the recess, President Obama may issue guidance, a presidential directive or something to try to alleviate temporarily the problems of illegal immigration and deportation. But, House Republicans have already moved forward on impeachment because they believe the president has exceeded his authority in issuing executive orders to address issues for which Congress has been unable to legislate solutions. It will be interesting to see how this resonates back in the local districts during recess. You will be hearing more about this in September and during the mid-term campaigns.

At present, House Republicans have denied funding for the Justice Department to help child migrants obtain legal counsel when called before immigration courts to face deportation orders. Government records indicate more than 40 percent of the children — many under 14 years of age and with little understanding of English — are processed through the system now without counsel. Republicans stripped out all money for attorneys for the children in their most recent supplemental spending bill passed on Aug. 1 to deal with the border crisis. In the latest skirmish, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) refused in mid-August to sign off on a subsequent DOJ request to transfer a reduced sum to expand legal orientation programs for the children and pay for lawyers." (See Politico Huddle) politi.co/1lOuf5y.

The House of Representatives did pass its version to reauthorize the Higher Education Act. This happened in mid-July. It passed on mostly a party-line vote. The legislation included student aid transparency, innovation in higher education, and improvements for college access and reduction of student debt.

The three bipartisan pieces higher education legislation aimed at improving transparency around financial aid and promoting innovative approaches for students passed the U.S. House of Representatives this week, prompting Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the Senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee to call for more comprehensive action to keep college accessible and affordable for students.

The three higher education bills that passed the House are:

The Advancing Competency-Based Education Demonstration Project Act (H.R. 3136) — helps colleges and universities to create innovative programs that measure students' mastery of skills and academic content, offering students new opportunities to complete their higher education. This bill will help ensure that more Americans have access to high quality, flexible educational opportunities that meet their needs and give them the skills to succeed in the 21st-century economy.

The Strengthening Transparency in Higher Education Act (H.R. 4983) — creates a new "College Dashboard," a tool for students to decide for themselves if a college has a good track record and is right for them. The dashboard will provide students and their families helpful information about each college, including: enrollment numbers, completion data for full-time and part-time students, net cost of attendance, average student loan debt and repayment rates, and transparency on the school's use of adjunct faculty. Democrats successfully fought to strengthen H.R. 4983 by including language to ensure that schools are being transparent about their reliance and treatment of adjunct faculty. This information is an important first step towards addressing the unfair treatment of many adjunct faculty.

The Empowering Students through Enhanced Financial Counseling Act (H.R. 4984) — provides more and better upfront, on-going, and exit counseling information on financial aid and student debt so that students can make more informed choices of how to finance their education and always know how much they will owe.

Four other education-related bills were introduced in July before the recess. Senators Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) Protecting Student Privacy Act, which would update the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974. This prohibits the use any personally identifiable student information for marketing or advertising. The bill would also limit how much information about students can be shared by schools to private entities, as well as how much those companies can expand and keep permanent student profiles.

There is a bipartisan Senate bill to curb campus sex assaults. The measure would require schools to make public the result of anonymous surveys concerning assault on campuses, and impose significant financial burdens on universities that fail to comply with some of the law's requirements. Very rarely does a bill become a truly collaborative process, and this bill has been collaborative and bipartisan according to Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who is one of the key sponsors. The bill attracted a diverse group of cosponsors, including Ms. McCaskill, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). Senator Charles E. Grassley (R-Ia.), and Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), as well as other members of both parties.

In the House Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), together with Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) introduced resolution H. Res 658. It focuses on the whole child approach to education and recognizes the role of parents, educators and community members in providing a whole child approach to education for every student. ASCD has been a major proponent of this initiative.

And the last bill with bipartisan support addresses a comprehensive approach to education is the Full Service Community Schools Act, which was introduced by House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.). The bill authorizes funding for full-service community schools, which can be found in nearly 100 places across the country including, Oakland, Calif.; Cincinnati, Ohio; Lincoln, Neb.; and Albuquerque, N.M.. If authorized, this bill would increase the number of places implementing community schools across the country, and enlist communities as key partners for student success.

This indicates some effort to address some issues in a bipartisan fashion. However, if both the Senate and House have Republican majorities in January 2015, a totally different Congress will emerge that will be battling the President rather than working with him. Obviously, control of the White House in 2016 will be a Republican focus.

We will just have to wait and see what can be accomplished when they return after Labor Day and before another recess for the mid-term election. Once the results are in from the mid-term election, there will be a good indication of what will or won't be able to be accomplished prior to the opening of the 114th Congress in January 2015.

Fritz Edelstein is a principal in Public Private Action. His work focuses on strategic government and constituent relations, business development strategy, advocacy research and policy analysis, strategic planning and resource development, and advocacy, outreach and public engagement. This work includes producing Fritzwire, the education Internet newsletter providing timely information on education and related issues. To subscribe, write fritz@publicprivateaction.com.

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