With legislative debates looming in Congress over sequestration, the federal debt ceiling, immigration reform, gun control, and more, school board members looking to influence federal education policy have their work cut out for them.
That’s the assessment of Norman J. Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a respected observer of the national political scene.
“You’re going to need every talent you can muster when you go to [Capitol] Hill,” he told school leaders planning to visit federal lawmakers as part of NSBA’s Federal Relations Network (FRN) Annual Conference in Washington, D.C. He spoke at the meeting on Sunday. “Be sure that you get your legislators’ attention.”
Members of Congress are distracted by more than just the legislative challenges that lie ahead, he said. Among Republicans, the re-election of President Obama has some party members questioning the GOP’s hard-line stance on some issues—a stance that some believe has hurt the party’s support among the young, minorities, and other constituency groups whose support will be needed to win future elections.
These questions are all the more unsettling to Republicans because, in the final weeks of the 2012 campaign, some party leaders were convinced GOP candidate Mitt Romney had pulled ahead of the president in the polls—and thus his defeat was all the more shocking.
Amidst their soul-searching, some Republicans are questioning whether it’s time to show the American people some legislative accomplishments, even if it means some compromise with Democrats. It’s a position that has support among some older, influential members of the Senate who are looking to their legacy as legislative leaders.
One possible sign of this new attitude was the end-of-year compromise that put off across-the-board federal budget cuts—the so-called “fiscal cliff,” Ornstein says. In the Senate, 89 senators approved the deal, even though its passage led to an increase in some taxes. At the same time, a small group of senators from both parties is working on immigration policy reform.
“We have a very interesting dynamic at work,” he said.
None of this suggests that a new bipartisan attitude is taking hold in Congress, he warned. Partisan divisions still run deep, and lawmakers face formidable political pressure to hold to the party line. Among House Republicans, in particular, he said, the threat of a primary challenge from unhappy conservatives back home is potent.
What it does mean is that Congress may be stirring from its legislative gridlock and that school board members may face a challenge focusing lawmakers on education issues.
“To get the attention of legislators, to get them to focus on the long overdue need for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act … to make sure we continue to expand our ability to educate and prepare the next generation for our workforce … it is no easy task.”