It’s not only a brand-new year; it’s also a brand-spanking-new 114th Congress: Fasten your seat belts, fam, because the legislative ride could get very rough.
Republicans not only grew their majority in the House of Representatives—perhaps solidifying it for another decade or more—but also managed to grab back control of the Senate with a comfortable margin. Added to that is a situation in which both the Democratic and Republican parties wrestle for political dominance on the cusp of the next big election cycle. Folks will be closely watching the fireworks as a resurgent President Barack Obama flexes muscle against belligerent congressional Republicans placating their restless red base. Obama’s veto threat on the Keystone XL pipeline and the GOP’s efforts at changing the 30-hour-workweek provision in the Affordable Care Act have already set the tone as Congress gets rocked.
There are lots of questions—“What next?” being the most obvious—but Congress is a tough nut to crack on any given day. The average voter has enough on his or her plate trying to keep track of it all, so The Take is turning to some of the best in the business: lobbyists, former top congressional staffers, policy researchers, legal minds and educators. If you want an initial top-of-the-year primer on what’s popping in Congress, all you have to do is read more.
Jarvis Stewart, IR+Media: There is a large section of the black community supporting the need for criminal-justice reform, for example, but they are looking for a far more mainstream legislative agenda. Issues that address the crumbling economic foundation and infrastructure of urban centers would be a great start.
One critical piece of legislation: addressing the student-loan issue that has delivered a crushing blow to parents and students across the country, especially those in the black community.
Congressional Black Caucus members should work more closely with the expanded Republican majority to create new markets and lower hurdles for minority small businesses. The fact is this: The decline of unemployment in black and urban communities is directly related to the increase and growth of black businesses. Black business owners—like their white, Asian and Latino counterparts—are far more likely to hire workers in communities where they’re located or where they’re from. For example, I suspect an opportunity for CBC members to join forces to amend Dodd-Frank [the Wall Street reform law]. Parts of that have had a negative impact on black-owned community banks, thus choking their ability to lend.
Margery Austin Turner, the Urban Institute: Our work as researchers and policymakers is stymied when we can’t gain access to essential data—much of which is collected and controlled by the federal government. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) introduced sensible, bipartisan legislation last month that focuses on the most basic prerequisite for evidence-based policy: good data that are current, representative and reliable. With the Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission Act of 2014, their charge to design a clearinghouse of federal data to support policy research would let researchers deploy federal data resources to help programs make better use of scarce public dollars.
Jeneba Ghatt, Ghatt Law Group: Did you know the Internet is not regulated by the government? That’s why it’s been such a great medium for ideas and dialogue. It partly explains the success of many Web-based businesses, including content providers like popular black blogs. However, the current fight over whether or not to regulate it [frequently referred to as the Net neutrality debate] is over the pipes and technology making it all work. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) was known as a bulldog when he headed the House Oversight and Government Committee. Just wait till he chairs the House Internet, Courts and Intellectual Property Subcommittee. He wants to stop the FCC from pushing Net neutrality. Meanwhile, as the new majority-controlled Republican Congress launches its first session, ranking members on the Senate Commerce Committee also have their sights set on Net neutrality.
It will also be interesting to see cybersecurity take priority.
With the recent hacking of Sony, allegedly by North Korea, we see renewed focus on cybersecurity and privacy. Here is where you will see some consensus and cooperation from the White House and Congress, as there is much division on the importance of privacy and Americans’ ability to be free from digital threats.
Republicans see 2016 around the corner and are very aware that anti-immigration bills will only help the Democrats energize Latinos. Instead, they will promote more H-1B visas for foreign tech workers as evidence of a pro-immigration movement. That will be a smokescreen to leverage against pressure from the extreme right to undo President Obama’s executive actions on immigration. Question is, how far will they go, and will they shut down the Department of Homeland Security?
Ron Hamm, Hamm Consulting: I believe addressing the issue of the federal budget and what level of spending activity the federal government should undertake will be a major political issue: Do we lessen government’s fiscal role or do we invest in the future of our nation? This is a major question in a year full of budget impasses and fiscal cliffs.
I also think that the Republican-controlled Congress will make it a big priority to curtail government regulations, arguing that they stymie economic growth. Cybersecurity and combating cyberthreats will also be a key issue in the wake of recent hacks and the highly adverse impact it could have on our nation.
Andre Perry, Davenport University: How many standardized tests should students take in a year? This Republican-dominated Congress takes on this question. Whatever the number, both parties seem open to reducing for different reasons. Whether to limit federal overreach or to provide more room for authentic teaching and learning, Congress seems poised to change a foundational element of No Child Left Behind: the administration of annual tests. Regardless of position, we should be able to measure performance without punishing teachers or students.
Changes in financial-aid policy will certainly be more contentious. Let’s be clear: Black, brown and poor folk need caps on interest rates, programs for loan forgiveness and the refinancing of student loans, but there is a party divide on these issues. Higher education issues should get more attention. For instance, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently proposed a plan to strengthen teacher preparation. If not careful, the new initiative could burden historically black colleges and universities like changes in the Parent PLUS program. In addition, the proposed college rating system will certainly cause a stir. Look for colleges to force compromises to the policy on their behalf and not black and brown students.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.