LAME-DUCK SURPRISE! COMPETES ACT PASSES – Remember all the legislative maneuvering that Tennessee Congressman Bart Gordon had to go through to pass the COMPETES Re-authorization Act (H.R. 5116) in the House last fall (see Uncensored November 2010)? The bill would double research budgets at some of the nation’s top science institutes, increase STEM education funds and spur regional manufacturing innovation programs. But no one really thought that it would pass the Senate in the final days of the 111th Congress. No one except Gordon. After an American Competitiveness event at the Center for American Progress late in the year, Gordon, who did not run for re-election, told me he was sure it would pass before he left Congress. Throughout the long day and night sessions in the final weeks, the Lame Duck focused on the DREAM Act and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell legislation – the COMPETES Act was never a subject of the press. But amazingly, on Friday Dec. 17, it was passed unanimously by the Senate. President Obama signed it into law the first week of January. “It is an example of the good bipartisan work,” said Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, the new Democratic “ranking” member.

REPUBLICANS CHANGE HOUSE ED COMMITTEE – A change of majority always impacts congressional committee structure, and hence, potentially, the legislation that comes out of them. This year is no different as the House changed to a Republican majority. Besides the usual switch of chairmen and minority/ majority offices, Republicans also have reduced the total size of each committee. In fact, the number of committees each congressman has to serve on has been reduced from three to two: “Members cannot be asked to become more engaged if they sit on three different committees and more than a handful of subcommittees,” House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio said in late December. He also reduced House members’ office budgets overall by 5 percent. Republicans also changed (once again!) the name of the Education and Labor Committee: back to the Republican’s favorite name: Education and the Workforce Committee.

SURPRISE NEW IMMIGRATION SUB-COM CHAIRMAN – One big midterm election assumption did not happen. Everyone had predicted that if the Republicans won the majority in the House, Iowa’s Steven King would be chairman of the House Judiciary Committee’s Immigration Sub-Com. Immigration policy experts such as Demetrios G. Papademetriou called King “the most knowledgeable” congressman about immigration on the Hill.” But much to everyone’s surprise, Speaker John Boehner chose Californian (Santa Barbara County) Rep. Elton Gallegly to head the committee with primary jurisdiction for immigration legislation. Gallegly headed the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus and is as tough on increasing immigration enforcement as was King. But unlike King, his first priority probably would not be reinterpreting the 14th amendment to exclude the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants. More likely, Gallegly’s priorities will focus on border enforcement, E-Verify (the electronic verification system that works like a credit card check) and an easier agricultural jobs temporary visa program. Some of this may be traded for passage of a limited DREAM Act.

MILITARY, SPORTS, BOYCOTT RHETORIC – CAUSING VIOLENCE? – In the days after the shooting of Arizona’s moderate Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in early January, there was much breast beating in the media about how heated partisan rhetoric might have caused a “toxic” environment that could drive “people on the psychological edge” to violence. Harsh military rhetoric is pointed to – especially that used by Sarah Palin during the campaign that literally and figuratively “targeted” the congresswoman. Maybe violent sports rhetoric in elections should be included as well. And certainly Rep. Raúl Grijalva’s passionate calls all last year to boycott Arizona can be questioned. His post-shooting pleas for civil rhetoric and policies rang just a wee bit hollow after his threat to shut down his constituents’ livelihoods.

PROS AND CONS OF GRADING – Many college professors not so secretly feel that grading papers and projects is a pain. It takes time, often requires difficult subjective judgments, and students can be very anxious about the results. But grading is also extremely important for both teacher and student. In a recent discussion about grading, several community college professors in California asked, “How can the student learn if they don’t know what they are getting right or wrong? And how can the teacher teach if they don’t know what the student has learned or not, or learned incorrectly? Only by grading student work can that be discovered.” But there were problems with Internet grading. While the student may get instant corrections, the teacher is often excluded. “In fact, the professor has no way of knowing what and how the student is learning and, consequently, how effective they and their (sic) methodologies are as a teacher,” one professor concluded.