From the Coalition Column of the November 2011 issue of Perspectives on History

The Do Nothings of Capitol Hill and the Know Nothings of the Nation: A Perfect Match?

Lee White, November 2011

Everyone has heard the old adage, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." In Washington, it seems that the more appropriate phrasing should be, "if it's broke, don't fix it."

Brinksmanship has now been raised to an art form. I recently watched an excellent biopic of Henry Clay on C-Span. Over his nearly 50 years in politics as speaker of the House, a U.S. senator and presidential candidate, Clay earned the title of "The Great Compromiser." What was no doubt a compliment during his era would be considered a slur in today's toxic environment on Capitol Hill.

One of the most frustrating things about being involved in advocating before Congress on behalf of history, or for funding for any federal program, is the annual demolition derby that is the congressional budget process. It doesn't seem to matter if Congress and the presidency are held by different, or the same, parties since the result is almost always the same. The finished product ends up being more of a rough draft stitched together during closed-door negotiations by appropriators and party leadership, often passed in the middle of the night right before Congress leaves for an extended holiday recess. In addition, as it looks like will happen again this year, usually a host of appropriations bills are lumped together in a huge omnibus bill making even less likely that individual Members of Congress can affect the outcome.

Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution states, "No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law." The Founding Fathers made passing an annual budget one of the basic functions of Congress, yet the job never seems to get done.

If you need any more evidence of how dysfunctional the federal appropriations process is, consider these facts. According to the Congressional Research Service, in 23 of the past 26 years (fiscal 1986–2011), Congress and the president did not complete action on a majority of the regular bills prior to the start of the fiscal year. In nine years, they did not finish any of the bills on or before October 1. They completed action on all the bills on schedule only three times: in the fiscal years 1989, 1995, and 1997.

Congress is currently muddling its way through the passage of the current year's budget even though a new fiscal year began on Oct. 1. Fiscal 2012 began with Congress having cleared no final appropriations measures. The House has passed 6 of its 12 appropriations bills, while the Senate so far has passed only one. The federal government is currently functioning under a continuing resolution that expires on Nov. 18. It is still uncertain whether leaders on both sides will decide to move the annual bills in a single omnibus or a series of smaller bills.

And as we saw this summer, the disease of hyperpartisanship has now spread to what used to be a perfunctory act—raising the debt ceiling. But rather than really dealing with the issue of debt reduction, as it usually does, Congress chose to procrastinate by creating a "super committee" made up of senior House and Senate members to report back in November with a deficit reduction plan for Congress to consider. The committee is tasked with developing legislative recommendations for cutting $1.5 trillion over the next decade.

Not surprisingly, just 12 percent of Americans now approve of the way Congress is handling its job, matching its all-time low, recorded in October 2008 at the height of the economic crisis, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, which was released on September 16. Only 6 percent of registered voters say that most members of Congress have earned re-election. And President Obama's disapproval ratings are hovering in the low 50 percent range, the worst of his presidency.

The American people are clearly fed up. So the collective response appears to be "throw the bums out." Well they've done that three times over the past four years. They elected a Democratic president to replace a Republican one and control of the House and Senate has flip-flopped between the Republicans and the Democrats.

Like a hyperactive child the body politic seems to be craving immediate gratification. They see problems that have festered for years such as deficit spending, the collapse of the real estate market, lack of a coherent energy policy, and underperforming schools, and demand that their representatives in Congress and the president to fix them right away or suffer the consequences. Incumbency and the ability to look out for constituents that went with seniority that used to be considered an asset is now a liability.

One could argue that a general lack of knowledge of history and civics have contributed mightily to the deterioration of public discourse and the ability of our elected officials at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to do their jobs. Even a rudimentary knowledge of how Congress works shows that all great legislative achievements in our nation's past have required serious compromise from both sides of the aisle. They also needed—as the founders clearly intended—a slow and deliberate legislative process. Obviously, the larger the challenge, the more likely it is that a bipartisan solution is needed.

Earlier this year, The Nation's Report Cards assessing knowledge of U.S. history, civics and geography by students in Grades 4, 8, and 12 showed students at all three levels generally performing at or below proficiency levels in all three subject areas. For example, in 2010, over half (55 percent) of high school seniors performed below the Basic achievement level in U.S. history.

"The report cards in civics and U.S. history, adds to a picture of stagnating or declining overall achievement among U.S. students in the social sciences." said David P. Driscoll, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP.

Despite the evidence and awareness of the problem of civic illiteracy, it appears that subjects like history and civics will be further marginalized when one considers the proposals on the table in the House and Senate to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

On Oct. 11 the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee released the draft of bill reauthorizing the ESEA. Sen. Tom Harkin, (D-IA), the committee chair, and Sen. Michael Enzi (R-WY) the ranking Republican, have been engaged in negotiations since early this year in crafting the bill. The 800 plus-page comprehensive legislation decentralizes educational funding from Washington to the states. States would be given block grants that in turn would be allocated to local education agencies through competitive grants. History education will have to compete at the local level for scarce resources.

Despite the apparent bipartisan support of Harkin and Enzi, restless Republicans in the Senate have moved forward introducing targeted bills, much like the approach taken in the House.

For example, Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) recently introduced the "Empowering Local Educational Decision Making Act of 2011" (S. 1569). The bill streamlines 59 programs into 2 flexible foundational block grants. The bill's "Fund for the Improvement of Teaching and Learning" consolidates 34 programs into one flexible, formula-driven program to fund locally-determined needs and initiatives.

House Education and Workforce Committee Chairman Rep. John Kline (R-MN) has taken the opposite approach passing a series of smaller bills targeted at specific issues and sections of the ESEA. For example, his committee earlier this year approved H.R. 1891 the "Setting New Priorities in Education Act." This bill would eliminate 43 programs at the Department of Education including Teaching American History (TAH) grants.

It remains to be seen in the current atmosphere in Washington whether ESEA reform, either in comprehensive or piecemeal form, can be enacted especially in a presidential election year. Nonetheless it appears—at least in this early stage of the process—that specifically targeted programs, such as TAH are a thing of the past.

The irony is that just when we desperately need an informed and engaged electorate, funding for history and civics education is now considered a luxury we can no longer afford.

Lee White is the executive director of the National Coalition for History. He can be reached at lwhite@historycoalition.org.