When political scholar Norman Ornstein took to the podium Sunday, he spent a surprising amount of time impersonating a stand-up comedian—sharing political joke after political joke with his audience.
Then he explained why: Everyone should have a good laugh, because now that he was turning serious, “it’s all downhill from this point on.”
The first general session speaker at NSBA’s Federal Relations Network (FRN) Conference, Ornstein told his audience of school board leaders that there wasn’t much good news to report out of Washington, D.C., these days. Politics in the nation’s capital is dysfunctional, with this year’s Congress the least productive in more than 60 years.
And now that the nation has entered a presidential election year, it is even less likely that the nation’s economic and political problems will be addressed.
“So there’s not much going on, and I don’t expect much through the remainder of this [year].”
That’s not to say there won’t be plenty of noise and fireworks, said Ornstein, who writes a daily column for Roll Call, the newspaper that extensively reports on Capitol Hill. The nation’s leaders still must address their decision to allow automatic federal budget cuts to take effect next January, part of a deal last fall to create a Super Committee that unsuccessfully sought to shrink the ballooning federal deficit.
The presidential campaign may be a serious roadblock to compromise, Ornstein said, but adding to the political dysfunction are this year’s state primaries for congressional seats and some Senate races. The risk of primary challenges only adds to the pressure of lawmakers to stake out positions favored by their most ideological constituents.
“It will be harder for members of Congress who want to [compromise] … it’s leading to the reality of the last several years, which is the collapse of the [political] center so there’s no real place where you can find common ground.”
All of this means Washington politicians will be less likely to resolve issues of concern to school boards, he said. And this political paralysis could make things worse. The spiraling federal budget deficit has encouraged proposals to turn over some of the federal government’s problems to state lawmakers.
For example, there are proposals to cut the federal budget through savings in Medicaid, which allegedly would come from funding the program through block grants to the states.
But, Ornstein said, the proposal still means less federal funding for state Medicaid programs—at a time when elderly health care is rising and unemployment is high. That means the financial pressure on states to provide basic services—such as education funding—will be all the greater.
It would be nice if, with fewer financial resources, school officials could find new and innovative ways to maintain their services to children, he said. “But we know what it will mean is a deterioration of services, a squeeze on extracurricular activities … on all areas outside of the core curriculum and a lot of others things that are going to make life for everybody in the trenches in the educational world more challenging.”
So school board members have a tough task ahead of them, Ornstein said.
“Part of the challenge isn’t just to come away with ways you can deal with this age of austerity … but to try to convince policymakers, who have a very different mindset, not to do things because of short-term interests … but in the interests of our children, grandchildren, and the future of this great country.”