Looking Backward and Moving Forward
Congress returns today for a post-election session that could be very consequential for the new Congress that was elected last week.
The “Lame Duck” 112th Congress may very well reach agreement with President Obama, energized by his re-election, on the framework of a deal to resolve the rapidly-approaching fiscal deadlines related to across-the-board spending cuts and expiring tax cuts. Most likely it would fall to the newly elected 113th Congress, which convenes in January and will include at least 93 newcomers to the House or Senate, to flesh out this framework.
Contrary to early predictions at the beginning of the election cycle that they might lose their Senate majority, the Democrats picked up seats in the Senate. Before the election, their margin was 53-47. In the next Congress, they will have at least 54 members of their “caucus”, or group of Senators who join together to organize within the Senate. That number includes one Independent, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and may include another, Senator-elect Angus King of Maine, who has yet to declare which caucus he will join. The Republicans currently have 45 members in their caucus. The major change in Committee chairs will be Senator Patty Murray of Washington State taking over the Budget Committee—and thereby a major role in upcoming deficit talks—replacing retiring Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota. New faces in the Senate known to be champions of young children will include Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Tim Kaine of Virginia. Committee assignments won’t be made until the new Congress convenes.
While the House remains in Republican hands, the exact margin is yet unknown. It appears the Democrats have picked up at least 5 or 6 seats, with 6 races still undecided. Notable losses include Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-MT), chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education as well as Co-Chair of the Congressional Baby Caucus. He left for an unsuccessful Senate run. Two key Republicans on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce will not be returning: Rep. Todd Platts (R-PA) retired, and Rep. Judy Biggert (R-IL) was defeated.
But before the 113th Congress comes to town in January, the government will face the so-called “fiscal cliff” created by the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts and the sequester (across-the-board cuts) ordained by the 2011 debt ceiling agreement on the first of January. Therefore, the 112th Congress has returned to face the music and, it is hoped, orchestrate at least the outlines of a bargain to avoid going over the cliff.
Even before the election, President Obama had let it be known that he intended to push for an agreement during the Lame Duck post-election session. Backed by his hefty electoral margin, he has set in motion a series of discussions with Congressional leaders, as well as union and business leaders, to start piecing together the parts of a deal. Possible components of any grand bargain include some kind of revenue increases, alterations to entitlements to achieve savings, and discretionary funding cuts. The deal will be shaped at the highest levels in broad outline, then most likely sent to individual Committees to write the fine print.
What’s the message for advocates for young children? All of these components could affect the ability of vulnerable families to provide the ingredients for the healthy development of their infants and toddlers as well as older children. Tax decisions may—or may not—include the enhanced Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit that the stimulus bill put in place. Entitlement reform may—or may not—protect the so-called “safety net” for low-income individuals and families provided by programs such as Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Discretionary cuts may—or may not—extract even more savings from programs such as Early Head Start and WIC that contribute to the well-being of children, on top of the savings already agreed to in the Budget Control Act.
What’s the message you should be sending to your Members of Congress, old, returning, or new? Any budget deal must be balanced in its approach and protect the programs that help support the ingredients of healthy, positive early childhood development, from early care and learning opportunities to nutrition to stable housing. To make vulnerable young children and their families bear the burden of controlling our debt is to undercut the very future we are trying to preserve.
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Senator Murray receives the award for making babies and young children a national priority.