Michele Stockwell is Vice President of Public Policy and the Executive Director of the Bipartisan Policy Center Advocacy Network (BPCAN).
(1) Considering your background in education reform legislation, and having worked in both the House and the Senate, how do you foresee the education debate playing out in the new Congress?
I think there is great possibility for a bipartisan accomplishment in education and believe it is one of the areas where the two sides have already demonstrated tremendous ability to reach consensus and develop innovative policies. In fact, there are many interesting efforts taking place at the state and local level that are being championed by both Republicans and Democrats from which there is a lot we can learn. Because so much has happened in education policy around the country since Congress last took up this issue, including the new reforms under Race to the Top that are just getting underway, and because we have so many new members who weren’t part of the previous debates, I think Congress will take its time examining these efforts before they are really ready to debate any comprehensive reauthorization. In addition, there is a new fiscal reality and Congress will need to discuss education reauthorization in the context of a constrained budget which will make for a more challenging discussion.
(2) On a broader scale, what issues do you see taking precedence on the Hill in the coming months? Are there areas for constructive agreement between Democrats and Republicans?
Clearly there will continue to be a top focus on job creation. At the same time we’ll see a lot of debate over the budget and the need to address the federal deficit and national debt. This will likely come to a head in March and April as the President is expected to ask Congress to raise the debt limit around that time. We’ve seen with both BPC’s Debt Reduction Task Force led by Sen. Pete Domenici and Alice Rivlin, as well as the President’s Commission, that it is possible for there to be bipartisan agreement around many of these issues if the will to do so is there. While there will be a lot of back and forth to get there, I think we can expect to see an eventual agreement reached on discretionary spending levels at a minimum. I believe we’ll also see the start of conversations on tax reform and simplification where there are many areas of commonality.
(3) In light of the recent shooting in Arizona, can Congress tone down the heated rhetoric and make more room for civility?
Yes, and hopefully some of the process changes in the new Congress will help facilitate some of that and I encourage them to stick to their plan for a more open and transparent process for considering bills in committee and on the floor. I do think that most members come to Congress because they want to get things done. More attention gets placed on the big divisive issues but, in reality, I think there are many “2nd tier” issues that are very important, such as transportation or manufacturing growth, where there are more shared beliefs than people probably realize. Unfortunately I think members don’t get to know their colleagues across the aisle as they used to and more could be done to encourage members to get to know one another – whether through regular bipartisan lunches or policy discussions.
(4) Reflecting on your time in both chambers of Congress, what can you say about the difference between how the House and the Senate operate? When comparing the two, what institutional norm or tradition surprised you the most?
My time in each chamber came at very different points in my career, so the experiences were very different for a number of reasons. In general, it was much easier in the Senate for an individual Senator to influence legislation that was moving. The House committee and leadership structure is a lot stronger so it’s harder for an individual member to really change a bill, especially if you’re not on the relevant committee. In the Senate I worked on some very rewarding bipartisan efforts, such as education reform, but it’s a more formal institution and the interaction between Senators and staff is very different from the House. I enjoyed the ability in the House to really get to know other Members besides your boss, particularly as a leadership staffer. One of the surprises for me going back to the House for the second time was with regard to the procedural motion to recommit. I don’t think I had a full appreciation before of the power of the recommit in the House and the challenges it can pose for the majority in trying to pass legislation.
(5) What was your favorite House or Senate cafeteria? Or do you have a favorite Capitol Hill restaurant?
My desk, there was never time to go to any of the cafeterias. I’m from Oklahoma and miss good Tex-Mex food but, as a former resident of the Capitol Hill neighborhood, I enjoyed going to La Plaza on the weekends which has good margaritas and is always open.