A lot has happened over the past few weeks on Capitol Hill, particularly with regards to Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 funding and recent shake-ups in Congressional leadership. With fall in full swing, we wanted to take a moment to re-cap all of the activity over the past few weeks as we look ahead for what the rest of the year has in store for the Career Technical Education (CTE) community. Below is Part I in a two-part series of autumnal legislative updates.
Speaker Boehner Announces His Retirement
Late last month, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) announced that he we would resign from Congress at the end of October. This surprise announcement set off a chain of events over the past several weeks that has already begun to have wide-ranging consequences for nearly every facet of the Congressional agenda—a list that has grown increasingly long as lawmakers delay action on important issues such as raising the nation’s debt limit and funding federal government operations past this December.
Up until last week, Speaker Boehner’s likely successor was current Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). McCarthy was favored by most of the Republican establishment to replace Boehner, but a vocal conservative bloc of the Republican Party— known as the “Freedom Caucus”— strongly opposed his candidacy. Despite this opposition and with a few other less plausible candidates in the running for Speaker, McCarthy was set to announce last Thursday that he had secured the necessary 218 votes within his Party to ensure his rise to Speaker of the House.
However instead of making this announcement, the Majority Leader abruptly announced that he was no longer seeking the Speaker’s gavel. Since that time there has been an extraordinary level of uncertainty regarding who will lead the House Republican Caucus moving forward. Speaker Boehner has made clear that he will stay on in his current role until a replacement is found, but an election to determine who that will be has been postponed indefinitely.
At present it is unclear who will fill this role in the coming weeks or even months. Any viable candidate for the job will have the unenviable task of balancing the increasingly opposed interests of two influential wings of the Republican Party all while trying to avoid a catastrophic default on the nation’s debt if Congress does not act to raise the federal government’s borrowing limit by November 5th—a deadline laid out by the U.S. Treasury Department that is fast approaching.
The intraparty division in the Republican Party is equal parts ideology and political approach. Staunch conservative elements in the GOP are pushing for a new Speaker who would be willing to use the debt limit deadline and the need to fund the federal government later this year as leverage to advance a legislative agenda that is completely anathema to Congressional Democrats and President Obama. More “establishment” Republicans have been less willing to use these twin deadlines as a political tool, calculating that the risks of going over a “fiscal cliff” (failing to raise the debt ceiling and / or causing a government shutdown) far outweigh the potential benefits.
Finding a candidate for Speaker who is able to placate these opposing factions has resulted in the current impasse in finding a suitable replacement candidate and has had a rather ironic short-term consequence— ensuring that Speaker Boehner remains in the top post of the House Republican leadership for the foreseeable future.
Congress Passes Short-Term Perkins Funding Bill
Right after Speaker Boehner’s announcement late last month, Congress was still struggling to pass appropriations legislation to fund the federal government. As we shared previously, both Chambers of Congress completed the 12 necessary funding bills that fund all federal programs. Despite this progress, these pieces of legislation all adhered to the sequester caps mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA)—a harmful program of austerity that imposes tight restrictions on federal spending well into the next decade.
Because these bills would maintain sequestration and continue to perpetuate a path of federal disinvestment in education and programs like the Perkins Act, President Obama signaled that he would not sign them into law. Since that time, the bills have been in limbo and lawmakers have been unable to come to an agreement for how to fund the federal government for the upcoming 2016 fiscal year—something that was set to begin on October 1st.
With only days left to pass legislation to fund these programs and avert a government shutdown, the Senate acted first passing a measure known as a continuing appropriations resolution (CR) to provide temporary funding for the federal government through December 11th. After passing through the Senate by a wide margin (78-20), Speaker Boehner’s resignation announcement helped to ensure that this short-term stopgap measure was able to pass through the House (277-151), albeit with significant Republican opposition.
While this CR is meant to extend current FY 2015 spending levels for the next few months—including for the Perkins Act basic state grant program— a 0.2108 percent across-the-board spending reduction was needed to keep funding levels within the BCA sequester caps. Since Perkins funding is treated a bit differently than most other federal funds, this spending cut has retroactively impacted state grants from FY 2015 which were just distributed on October 1st. As a result, thirty states received slightly lower allocations than what they had previously budgeted for, all because Congress failed for the second year in a row to pass comprehensive legislation funding federal programs for the full fiscal year.
As mentioned this particular CR will fund the federal government until December 11th at which time Congress must act again to pass additional legislation to avert another wasteful government shutdown. As a reminder the last time Congress failed to act to fund the federal government it cost U.S. taxpayers $24 billion.
While the reduction to Perkins funding and other education programs may be small, future legislation is still needed to replace this CR. NASDCTEc is continuing to work with its partners in D.C. to urge lawmakers to pass comprehensive funding legislation that would replace the current CR (and the related 0.2108 percent cut) while possibly providing relief from the harmful effects of the sequester caps.
Complicating Congress’ ability to accomplish this is the continued uncertainty regarding House Republican leadership and an even more pressing deadline that is fast approaching—the need to raise the nation’s debt ceiling by November 5th. The last time Congress flirted with the idea of not raising this limit as way to extract political concessions on unrelated issues, credit agencies downgraded the U.S. credit rating for the first time ever and Congress passed through the BCA legislation and with it sequestration—something lawmakers at the time did not expect would ever go into full effect.
In order to move forward constructively, Congressional leaders and President Obama must come to a broader agreement on federal spending that would empower Congressional appropriators to design longer-term comprehensive legislation that would fund federal operations for a year or even two years—a scenario that is still very much fluid as of today.
As things continue to evolve, be sure to check back here for additional updates and analysis. Part II of this legislative update will be available tomorrow.
Steve Voytek, Government Relations Manager