Congressional leaders and President Obama reached a deal to raise the debt ceiling mere hours before the United States would have begun defaulting on its financial obligations for the first time in the nation’s history. The agreement, the Budget Control Act of 2011, was approved by the House of Representatives and the Senate with bipartisan support and sent to the president Aug. 2.

The agreement extends the current debt ceiling sufficiently to allow the Treasury Department to operate beyond the 2012 election, while simultaneously setting caps on discretionary spending for the next decade that would reduce the deficit by $917 billion. The first round of cuts is expected to mean roughly $22 billion in spending reductions in Fiscal Year 2012. Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are not expected to be affected by these immediate spending reductions.

The agreement also includes a second round of cuts, to be achieved in one of two ways. A new bipartisan, bicameral congressional committee will be established and charged with submitting $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction recommendations to Congress by Nov. 23. After the “super committee” submits its recommendations, which can cover everything from entitlement cuts to tax changes, the House and the Senate must vote on those recommendations within a month. If no such spending reduction package is adopted, however, at least $1.2 trillion in automatic spending reductions would take place. These automatic spending reductions — over and above the nearly $1 trillion in discretionary spending cuts already included in the Budget Control Act — would be divided equally between defense and nondefense programs, while spending on Social Security, Medicaid and other low-income programs would be exempt from cuts. Medicare spending, however, could be targeted for spending reductions under this second round of cuts.

The legislation contains both good news and bad news regarding Pell Grants. On the plus side, the agreement invests a total of $17 billion in the program during the next two years. On the negative side, this is being paid for by eliminating the in-school interest subsidy for graduate students and ending repayment incentives for students with federal loans. These cuts save an estimated $21.6 billion, $4.6 billion of which would be allocated to deficit reduction rather than to shoring up the program.

Despite lobbying from physicians’ groups earlier this year, the debt agreement does not designate money to prevent the steep cuts in Medicare payment rates for doctors scheduled to take effect Jan. 1. This might make it more difficult to add benefits and providers, including counselors, to the program.

Leadership institute lobbying boosts counseling agenda

More than 100 counselors attending the American Counseling Association Institute for Leadership Training devoted a day to visiting with their members of Congress on Capitol Hill to lobby on behalf of the counseling profession. These visits have become an integral part of the annual leadership institute and are an invaluable way for ACA to push its legislative agenda. Studies show that in-person visits from constituents are the most effective form of contact with congressional offices.

Attendees lobbied on behalf of increased support of school counselors within the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and in federal education spending as a whole, as well as on behalf of legislation (S. 604) to establish Medicare coverage of licensed professional counselors. The meetings had an immediate impact. ACA Western Region Chair Paul Fornell received word later in the day of his lobbying visit with Sen. Jeff Bingaman’s office that Bingaman (D-N.M.) would sign on as a cosponsor of S. 604. Bingaman had cosponsored previous versions of the legislation but had not yet cosponsored S. 604. Other attendees reported positive responses from congressional offices on both the school counseling and Medicare issues.

Among the visits was a productive discussion with the office of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) regarding school counselors and ESEA legislation, including his Successful, Safe and Healthy Students Act of 2011 bill (S. 919). Harkin’s bill would establish a program of grants to state education agencies to develop systems measuring “conditions for learning” in schools, including physical, mental and emotional health promotion. States would also use grants to help local education agencies implement programs in this area. Each of three program areas would have to receive at least 20 percent of total state spending on these “subgrants”: mental health promotion, physical health promotion, and drug and violence prevention.

Institute attendees also lobbied on behalf of other education bills of importance to school counselors, including the Put School Counselors Where They’re Needed Act (H.R. 667) and the Reducing Barriers to Learning Act (H.R. 1995). Although it is likely that ESEA will not get reauthorized until after the 2012 elections, counselors’ efforts over the coming months can increase support for counselor-friendly education policies heading into this debate.

ACA sincerely thanks Institute for Leadership Training attendees for their hard work in lobbying for the profession. These and other advocacy efforts by counselors will make the difference between success and failure.