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Changes ahead

November 12, 2010

The times, they are a-changing. The makeup of the House of Representatives will shift in January from 255 Democrats and 178 Republicans to 193 Democrats and 242 Republicans. In the Senate, Republicans have gained five seats, lowering the Democratic majority to a bare 51 seats.

While the change is clear, what this will mean for the country and for Monmouth College over the next two years is more obscure.

Republicans campaigned on issues that included cutting government spending, reducing the federal deficit and extending the Bush tax cuts, but those goals may be difficult to achieve.

“We have a very interesting situation in which we have a Republican party that is really in some ways come back to power with this very strong plea for cutting government spending. But can we really afford to cut government spending given the deep recession we’re in? A majority of economists think this is not the right time to do it,” said Farhat Haq, chair of the political science department.

“The problems here are that the Republicans have already said the three things that cause the most amount of spending and deficit: defense, social security and Medicare are off the table,” said Annika Hagley, assistant professor of political science. “When you extend tax cuts you have a lack of revenue. So they’re not going to cut those programs that are electorally suicide, basically, but they’re going to extend tax cuts. Well, how are they going to reduce the deficit?”

Haq felt that extending the tax cuts for those making over $250,000 may be a contentious issue which could draw resistance from Democrats. “For both sides there are such high stakes on this because their bases have very strong ideas about it.”

Should hot-button issues like the Bush tax cuts become central issues for the new Congress the partisan divide that characterized 2010 may continue to stall legislation. Hagley does not see that as a strong likelihood. She said there has been a push for more bipartisanship from the people. “And I think that’s got through. I think that message has got through that this kind of hyper-partisanship is unacceptable to the majority of American people.”

Robin Johnson, a political science lecturer, is less optimistic. “While I would love to see some bipartisanship and cooperation and we may see that, my sense is that it’s going to be gridlock leading up to the 2012 presidential race,” said Johnson.

Johnson sees the growing tensions between pragmatists and ideologues in both parties as helping to drive them toward noncooperation. Johnson and Hagley both see the tea party movement as a potential challenge to Republicans if House Republicans try to moderate their campaign promises too much. The Democrats also face potential fracturing between more centrist and more progressive members.

Whether the parties cooperate or not, Hagley sees the next Congress as being one where fiscal issues take precedent over social issues. She does not see Republicans as likely to push a conservative social agenda past Obama’s veto power nor does she think the Democrats have enough power to push through any liberal social issues.

“[Presumptive Speaker of the House] John Boehner has an extraordinarily hard job ahead of him and a couple of feet wrong in either direction could make him the best speaker of the House that this country has ever seen or could destroy the Republican party,” said Hagley.

While it is often easy for college students to miss the effect the national political scene has on them, the drive to cut government spending may have an adverse affect on students that rely on financial aid to afford college.

“A lot of this talk of cutting government spending sounded pretty good during this election cycle, but very few people provided many details,” said Johnson. “I think there’s a chance once they sit down to start cutting there’s some programs affecting college students that’ll be put in jeopardy, including financial aid.”

Legislation passed earlier this year changed the federal student loan program so that the government provided loans directly instead of issuing them through private banks. Johnson said the new Congress may consider reintroducing private enterprise into the process.

On the state level, there are also concerns for students.

“What’s been really lucky for us at Monmouth College is that we have not been impacted as harshly by the economic downturn as we were anticipating,” said Haq. “But one of the things that is going to happen is that state governments are increasingly almost bankrupt.”

“I think it was last year, there was this question of cutting back [Illinois’ Monetary Award Program] grant. If this kind of fiscal situation continues, which there are signs that it will, I think that’s going to come back,” said Haq.

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