How Midterm Elections Could Impact Federal Youth Policy Discussion

To the shock of absolutely nobody, youth services was not an issue on the minds of the candidates or voters as far as today’s midterm elections were concerned. There were some races where immigration was a major issue, and at least part of that discussion now centers on the unaccompanied minors coming across the border from violent Central American countries.

But here are a few half-baked thoughts on how the elections could impact youth policy in the Beltway:

Future of the Foster Care Caucuses

On the House side, three of the four Caucus leaders will be back for another term. But the leadership, which is very intentionally bi-partisan, will need a new Republican.

Reps. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) and Tom Marino (R-Penn.) are all cruising to victory at the moment. The other co-chair, Michele Bachmann, is leaving Congress at the end of this term.

The Senate Caucus on Foster Youth could lose two Democrats, including one of its leaders. Co-Chair Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), one of the most vocal Senators in history on the issue of child welfare, is literally in a jungle battle for her job.

She is running in an open primary with two Republicans – U.S. Rep Bill Cassidy and Tea Party candidate Rob Maness – and is favored to win that primary.

But Louisiana law requires a runoff between the top two finishers if the primary winner does not receive 50 percent of the vote, and Landrieu is not projected by anyone to receive that. In a runoff with Cassidy, which would be held Dec. 6, the outcome is rated a toss-up by Real Clear Politics with a slight advantage to Cassidy.

Another member of the Senate caucus, Mark Begich (D-Ala.), is currently in a reelection dogfight with Dan Sullivan for Alaska’s open seat. Begich is now a slight underdog.

Al Franken (D-Minn), a member of the Foster Youth Caucus and the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP), looked to have a tough race early on but is now poised for a victory. He is the strongest voice for inclusion of foster youth issues in the committee’s most recent markup of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

Child Welfare Financing

Youth advocates on Capitol Hill are gearing up to push this issue no matter who wins tonight, but there is no denying that the context will change if the Republicans take the Senate and the House.

At the center of this, of course, is Title IV-E, a rigid entitlement that funnels dollars to states only to finance foster care services. The eligibility criteria for the entitlement is outdated and based on 1996 poverty standards, which has contributed to an overall erosion of foster care funds.

There is a formal push at hand, led by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, to limit the amount of time in foster care that federal dollars can be used for any child, particularly those placed into group care.

There is another push, led by three major membership organizations, to tie IV-E in with other prevention- and preservation-oriented programs, in an attempt to make the funding more flexible.

Either agenda is perhaps more likely to move under full GOP control. The last legislative effort to change Title IV-E funding, about 10 years ago, was led by two Republicans: Rep. Wally Herger (R-Calif.) and President George W. Bush.

Both wanted to see states have the option to accept a capped amount in lieu of the IV-E entitlement, with permission to use those funds on a wide range of child welfare services.

The political risk comes in balancing the use of dollars with the amount of dollars. Casey wants to limit the allowable uses of an entitlement; the “Big Three” proposal would move away from the entitlement.

One policy veteran said either one is risky if the Republicans have a broader agenda to cut down domestic spending.

Child welfare finance reform “could be implemented through a reconciliation process that limits debate and would cause child welfare funding to compete with other vital programs such as a Medicaid and nutrition, with child welfare the one left on the table for reductions as some sort of compromise,” he told YSI.   All the more reason to get a deal done on child welfare before any broad spending agenda is put into play?

“Not sure if there is a consensus for a post-election deal,” he said.

The Harkin Vacuum

Either Democrat Bruce Braley or Republican Joni Ernst will take Senate seat vacated by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). But it is his committee leadership that’s of primary interest to youth policy observers.

Harkin chairs the HELP Committee for another few months, and then exits stage…left, we guess? He surprised many in 2013 when, despite raising $2.7 million, he announced he would leave the Senate after 30 years.

Harkin presided over a slew of education-related bills during his tenure at the helm of HELP. But recently, the committee has failed to find an agreeable replacement for the No Child Left Behind Act, despite the fact that committee members on both sides of the aisle hate the law with equal passion.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) will likely take over HELP if the Republicans take control of the Senate. Our colleagues at The Chronicle of Higher Education produced an excellent piece on Alexander’s priorities when it comes to education, which you can read by clicking here.

YSI has sat in on two HELP markups of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in recent years. In 2012, Alexander and Harkin seemed close to a consensus on how to scrap No Child Left Behind, basically by stripping out the heavy accountability requirements for all schools except for the worst-performing five percent.

At the next go-round, in 2013, Alexander began the markup by saying that the country didn’t need a “national school board,” a phrase he repeated at least ten times that afternoon. We got the feeling at that markup that Alexander and the Republicans were willing to wait on ESEA to see if they could updated it with two-chamber control.

 A Point of Light in the Senate

Michelle Nunn, the service-learning enthusiast and CEO of Points of Light, took time off to run for the Georgia Senate seat opened up by the retirement of Saxby Chambliss (R). She is in a toss-up race with Republican David Perdue and Libertarian Amanda Swafford.

Swafford is pulling just enough support that she might force a Jan. 6 runoff election between Nunn and Perdue, which would be necessary if neither gets 50 percent of the vote.

If Nunn wins, we predict with confidence that she will become a lead champion in the Senate on youth development. Her presence will certainly be cause for cheer at the Corporation of National and Community Service.

Youth Services Insider is mostly written by Chronicle Editor John Kelly.

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
About John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change 1211 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at