The Impact of the 2010 Congressional Election: Some Initial Thoughts

Lee White, December 2010

On Tuesday, November 2, 2010, U.S. voters dramatically changed the landscape in Washington. Republicans gained control of the House and, although the Democrats retained control of the Senate their margin in that body has been reduced to 53-47. As this column is being written, just a few days after the election, what we have can best be described as a 535-piece puzzle with only the borders in place.

Clearly the most dramatic change will be in the House with new Republican committee and subcommittee chairs taking over. Traditionally, the committee ratios come close to mirroring the overall percentage of seats each party controls in that body. Based on the latest projections it appears that the Republicans will hold a 243 to 192 advantage or approximately 56 percent of the seats in the House.

The post-election period is critical as the jockeying for assignments to prime committees, and the selection of subcommittee chairs and ranking members, takes place within each party’s caucuses. Who fills these slots has a great bearing on what will take place in the next two years. There is some sentiment being expressed among Republicans in the House that committees have become unwieldy because of their size. Also, the number of subcommittees on key panels may be reduced. A Republican transition team is currently studying these issues and will be making reform recommendations to the leadership before the 112th Congress convenes in January.

Predictions as to who will end up where are speculative at best. It is somewhat like the start of training camp for a professional sports team. We generally know who the stars, or committee chairs and ranking members, will be and what positions they will be playing. The supporting players, members with some seniority, will be fighting for key subcommittee positions. And the freshmen, or rookies, will be looking to make enough of an impression to secure a spot on choice committees.

Despite all of the caveats, one can still make an educated guess about the impact the election will have on three major issues of importance to historians. (Note: publications such as the Congressional Quarterly, the Washington Post, Politico.com and others have been consulted in preparing this analysis).

Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). This is one possible area of compromise. Neither party is happy with the results of the most previous reauthorization of the education law, No Child Left Behind. The Obama administration has been aggressively pursuing educational reform in its first two years. The Department of Education has encouraged states to work together to create “voluntary” common core standards. The Administration has also pressed for greater teacher accountability, charter schools, and giving greater flexibility to state and local officials. These are all potential areas of common ground with Republicans whose goal will be to reduce, as much as possible, federal intervention in education at the state and local level. The political downside to cooperation on this issue for Republicans will be to give President Obama a successful issue for his 2012 campaign. In addition many of the newly elected “Tea Party” freshmen ran on a pledge to eliminate the Department of Education.

The continuation, in some form, of the Teaching American History grants program faces an uncertain future. The White House has proposed consolidating 38 existing K–12 education programs into 11 new programs. Under the administration’s plan, grants for history education would now be part of a new program called “Effective Teaching and Learning for a Well-Rounded Education.” Teaching American History Grants would be consolidated into this new program and would no longer exist as a free-standing budget line item.

In the past, the Obama administration has called into question the degree to which the TAH program has reached districts and teachers most in need of federally funded professional development and also stressed the need for better evaluation of the program’s effectiveness. The position of the presumptive new chair of the House Education and Labor Committee chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) on the TAH program is not yet known.

National Historical Publications and Records Commission. Since as far back as the Reagan administration, Republicans have been trying to eliminate the NHPRC. Earlier this year, House Republicans let the public vote on their web site for programs to eliminate and the NHPRC came out near the top of one poll. Republican members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee have blocked reauthorization in the House by threatening to offer amendments to the NHPRC reauthorization bill that would freeze funding and effectively gut the program. Without an authorization, the NHPRC will be even more vulnerable to elimination unless the Senate digs in its heels to save the program. Much also depends on what the Obama administration’s fiscal 2012 budget proposes for NHPRC when it is released in February.

Appropriations. In October, Congress left town for the elections without passing a fiscal 2011 budget. The current short-term continuing resolution that has provided the funds to keep the government operating expires in early December. Congress will have to return in a lame duck session to either pass an omnibus fiscal 2011 budget bill (unlikely) or an additional continuing resolution to keep the government running until after January 3, 2011, when the Republicans take over the House. Currently federal agencies are being funded at the fiscal 2010 level. However, there is sentiment among the Republican leadership to attempt to roll back fiscal 2011 funding to fiscal 2008 levels for discretionary nondefense spending.

Were that to happen, agencies such as the National Archives and the National Endowment for the Humanities would be hard hit and the progress the historical community has made towards increasing funding over the past few years would be lost.

Lee White is the executive director of the National Coalition for History. He expresses his gratitude to the National Security Archive and the Associated Press, on whose reports he has heavily relied for writing this article. He can be reached at lwhite@nationalhistorycoalition.org.