The Opening of the 115th Congress

The 115th Congress is officially underway as lawmakers kick-started the new Congress on January 3, 2017 at noon. 

US Capitol Building in Washington DC
US Capitol Building in Washington DC

Under its rules, the House of Representatives cannot constitute itself until it has elected a Speaker of the House.  This made the full House vote of electing Paul Ryan (R-WI) Speaker the opening process moment of the new Congress.  The Wisconsin Congressman was re-elected with just one Republican voting against him.  Following his re-election, Speaker Ryan swore in all members of the 115th Congress en masse.  Ryan will lead a House with 241 Republicans and 194 Democrats.

The House will also consider a Rules package during the opening week, which could provide clarity on other important process questions, such as how quickly a Budget Resolution can be considered in the absence of organized committees.  The House will also spend the next two weeks finalizing their committee assignments. 

In the Senate, seven new senators were sworn in by Vice President Joe Biden, as 27 senators who won re-election in November. This marks the last time the outgoing vice president will preside over a new Congress. 

Republicans are welcoming two new senators — Todd Young (R-IN.) and John Kennedy (R-LA.).  Democrats welcome five new senators: Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Maggie Hassan (D-NH).  Republicans hold control of the Senate by a margin of 52 to 48 (2 Independents caucus with the Democrats). 

The Senate is expected to begin debate today on the FY17 Budget Resolution, which will set in place a budget reconciliation process.  There is up to 50 hours of debate on the budget resolution, after which the Senate will begin the traditional “vote-a-rama”.  At this time, Members can offer amendments at will for a vote.  The budget resolution does not itself change law, so “vote-a-rama” votes are messaging votes, and as such can cover a wide swath of issues. 

It is currently anticipated that the vote-a-rama will begin next Wednesday January 11, which will leave sufficient time for the Senate to send the budget to the House for its consideration later next week.  The House expects to approve the Senate-passed budget no later than Friday, January 13.

Education Policy Notes

Senate Republicans announced that newly elected Indiana Senator Todd Young will join the Senate HELP Committee, the group of lawmakers who oversee education policy in the Senate.  In the House, Young was a strong public advocate of income-share agreements for higher education.  Democrats have added two new members to the committee:  newly elected New Hampshire Senator Maggie Hassan and former Vice Presidential Candidate Tim Kaine.  The House hopes to finalize its roster to the Education and Workforce Committee by next week. 

The next major endeavor in federal education policy will be the confirmation hearing of President-Elect Donald Trump’s nominee for US Department of Education, Betsy DeVos.  DeVos is the former chair of the American Federation for Children, an organization responsible for crafting a proposal to grow charter schools and voucher programs intended to provide families with public funds to spend on school choice initiatives.  In addition to her strong support for school choice, she is a well-known philanthropist and an active donor to Republican candidates and causes. DeVos also serves on the board of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, an organization founded by Jeb Bush, which has strongly supported the Common Core State Standards, charter school expansion and school choice in Florida.  Since her nomination, DeVos has said she opposes the Common Core Standards. 

While President-Elect Trump did not provide details to his education proposals during the presidential campaign, he has called for the creation of a $20 billion block grant intended to expand school choice options for children.  The proposal also calls for states to provide an additional $110 billion toward school choice efforts.  Without details, it remains unclear what impact this proposal would have on current education law such as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).   

 

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The date for the DeVos confirmation hearing will be January 11. We expect this to the first time we hear of the new administration’s plans on how to move forward with ESSA.  NAfME staff will provide updates as those details of her hearing become available. 

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Tooshar Swain, Policy Advisor, Center for Advocacy, Policy, and Constituency Engagement, January 4, 2017. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)