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Published in Print: June 7, 2006, as Conservative House GOP Group Flexes Policy Muscle

Conservative House GOP Group Flexes Policy Muscle

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As debates raged last year over how much federal aid to provide in response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, including to help schools, a coalition of staunchly conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives insisted that lawmakers try to save money in other places to pay for hurricane relief.

When it came to education, the “Operation Offset” money-saving proposals from the Republican Study Committee were sure to spark protests: Eliminate subsidies for full-price school lunches and breakfasts, scrap the Even Start literacy program for disadvantaged parents and young children, and shutter the 69 schools run by the Department of Defense on military bases in the United States.

Though many of the group’s proposals—including those three—never got traction, pressure in part from RSC members to hold the line on spending resulted in a 1 percent cut to most federal agencies for fiscal 2006, including the Department of Education, which was already grappling with reduced spending levels.

Study Hall

The Republican Study Committee is a coalition of more than 110 House members organized to promote a conservative fiscal and social agenda and to limit the reach of the federal government, including on education matters. Some key members:

Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., has been chairman of the Republican Study Committee since September 2004. He has led the coalition on a fiscally hawkish agenda that has raised the group’s profile. Mr. Pence testified against the No Child Left Behind Act when it was pending in Congress in 2001 and later voted against it.

Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., a member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, opposes any type of national testing, including the National Assessment of Educational Progress. He is a supporter of private school vouchers. Rep. Souder voted for the No Child Left Behind law.

Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C., was not in the House when the No Child Left Behind Act passed, but opposes the law. In 2005, he cast a decisive vote on the education committee, helping to block, for a time, a proposal for voucher-like accounts to help schools pay for the cost of educating students displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

“They are a major voting block in the House,” Mary Kusler, the assistant director of government relations for the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va., said of the Republican Study Committee, one of many coalitions of House members. “They absolutely wield power.”

Members of the RSC, who sometimes bill themselves as the “majority of the majority” in the House, have played key roles in federal education policy, whether in trimming spending or tamping down the federal reach into the classroom.

Now its members are quietly preparing to take on what will likely be their biggest education challenge: the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, scheduled for next year.

“They could have a sizable impact,” said House Majority Leader John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the former chairman of the House education committee and a lead architect of the bipartisan federal education law. “It depends on what role they decide to play.”

The Republican Study Committee describes itself as a group of more than 110 House members who band together to advance a conservative social and economic agenda. Like a long list of caucuses and coalitions in the House, which gather like-minded members on everything from dairy issues to shipbuilding, the RSC tries to use its membership to influence the issues it’s concerned about most.

The Honeymoon’s Over

One of the group’s core principles is a limited role for the federal government. So for some RSC members, the 4-year-old No Child Left Behind Act, which is arguably the most expansive federal education law in history, is anathema.

The law’s requirement that states test students in reading and mathematics annually in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school, and its sanctions for schools and districts that don’t show adequate progress, fly in the face of what many RSC members believe is the need for more local control of education.

When the law, championed by President Bush, passed Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support in 2001, some members of the RSC reluctantly voted for it. Only 33 House Republicans opposed the measure. But that was a very different political climate, said Michael J. Petrilli, a former Education Department official under Mr. Bush.

“It was right after September 11, and it was the honeymoon period with the president, so those Republicans kind of gave him a pass and said, ‘We’ll follow his lead and trust him,’ ” said Mr. Petrilli, now the vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a research and advocacy group in Washington. “It’s fair to say that some conservative Republicans have buyer’s remorse.”

With President Bush’s dwindling approval ratings and a presidential election looming in 2008, it’s unlikely that members of the RSC will view the law the same way, he said.

Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., a member of the RSC as well as the House Education and the Workforce Committee, agreed. He said study-committee members would be pushing hard to expand public school choice programs or to add private school vouchers to the law, an idea that he believes the Bush administration did not pursue with vigor during the legislation’s first go-round.

But he also said much depends on the outcome of this year’s congressional elections. If Democrats regain control of the House, the RSC’s impact will likely be muted. Also, regardless of which party is in control, the RSC and others may work to block reauthorization of the law altogether—even if President Bush pushes for it—until after the presidential election.

“The president is not going to be able to drive policy as much,” Rep. Souder said in an interview. “The RSC could prohibit a Bush-backed bill from passing.”

In fact, the man at the helm of the RSC, Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, was one of the 33 House Republicans who voted against the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, and he clearly remains dissatisfied with the law.

In an interview late last month with The National Journal, a Washington-based magazine that covers government and public policy, Rep. Pence said the No Child Left Behind legislation “was virtually identical to the bill that President Clinton had sent to [Capitol] Hill. It seemed to me that would have been a perfect moment to say to the president that we understand that you have a priority and want to get this done, but let’s not just increase the size of the Department of Education by 50 percent.”

Other RSC members believe the law reaches too far into the purview of states and local school districts and hope to roll back some provisions of the law when it comes up for reauthorization. Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C., a member of both the study committee and the House education committee, called the law “a disaster” and said it should be repealed. He has no plans to back away from that stance when it comes to reauthorization, he said.

“It’s arrogance to assume that Washington knows how to do education,” said Rep. Inglis, who was not serving in the House when the law passed but said he “would have voted no a thousand times.”

Taking Them Seriously

The RSC’S influence has been on the rise, and the group is expected to have pull when it comes to the NCLB reauthorization, particularly if the Republicans still hold the House reins. The conservative caucus played a significant part in helping to fight off the Bush administration’s efforts last year to expand the law at the high school level, said Rep. Michael N. Castle, R-Del., the chairman of the House education committee’s Education Reform Subcommittee.

The RSC was “concerned about the expansion of No Child Left Behind, and their opposition to it is one of the reasons [the high school proposal didn’t go further,” said Rep. Castle, who leads a more moderate coalition in the House called the Republican Main Street Partnership.

The conservative caucus, too, may be able to call in a favor from Rep. Boehner, who was elected to the majority leader’s post with the crucial support of the group’s members. Just days after his election to the leadership job, he was the headliner at a fund-raiser for the RSC political action committee.

Even though Rep. Boehner was an architect of the No Child Left Behind law, he has been careful to stay on friendly terms with the RSC, said Andrew J. Rotherham, a co-founder and the director of Education Sector, a Washington think tank, and a former education aide to President Clinton.

“There are enough of them, and they are wired in enough to the party’s base so that Republican leaders clearly take them very seriously,” said Mr. Rotherham.

“Boehner is going to make sure he doesn’t get in trouble with them,” he said. “He’s going to figure this out, but these guys are going to have a voice.”

But the RSC remains skeptical of Rep. Boehner and of the House education committee’s new chairman, Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., a disciple of Rep. Boehner’s. At a Capitol Hill briefing on the No Child Left Behind Act last week for staff representatives of RSC members, aides to the education committee leadership were excluded, according to one meeting participant.

The RSC sometimes feels “that members are not able to get nuanced or full explanations of legislation from the leadership,” said the participant.

Though Rep. McKeon, is, on paper, an RSC member, he is not an active one.

Liberal Allies?

Some observers think the group’s influence is more through public relations than actual legislative power. Adam Hughes, the director of federal fiscal policy at the nonprofit government watchdog group OMB Watch, based in Washington, said the RSC claims to have more than 110 members, but its core supporters number many fewer. Privately, even some members of the RSC agree with that assessment.

“I think those numbers are inflated, and I don’t think they vote all as one,” Mr. Hughes said.

“It’s not monolithic,” Mr. Inglis agreed.

The group may have to work hard to maintain the unity it will need to have a major impact on the NCLB reauthorization. Within the group, there is a wide range of views on the No Child Left Behind law, from those, such as Rep. Inglis, who believe the law should be scrapped to others, such as Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., who want to make changes within the law’s existing framework.

Rep. Terry has introduced broad legislation that would loosen some of the law’s requirements, including freeing some school districts from having to report test results of some English-language learners.

As improbable as it may sound, the RSC may find legislative allies among liberal Democrats in Congress, who have been frustrated, for example, with what they see as inadequate federal funding to help meet the law’s mandates.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if a very strange set of allies joined with those that are traditionally on the left to undo or water down key provisions of NCLB,” said Dianne M. Piché, the executive director of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, a Washington-based watchdog group that has been a backer of the law. “It’s a threat that people who support the law need to pay attention to.”

Randall J. Moody, the manager of federal policy and politics for the 2.7 million-member National Education Association, which is typically allied with liberal House members, said he could envision a scenario in which his Washington-based teachers’ union works with members of the RSC.

“Obviously, they have a philosophy which should in some ways mesh with ours in terms of empowering school districts and teachers at the local level,” he said. “In reauthorization, that coalition might be helpful.”

He acknowledged that “in terms of money, they haven’t been helpful.” While the NEA has repeatedly called for more federal education funding, the RSC has worked to cut the amount of the federal budget spent on education. But that doesn’t preclude working together, Mr. Moody said.

Though he would only say “possibly” when asked if the NEA has already been in contact with RSC members about the law’s reauthorization, he emphasized that “our goal here isn’t partisan or ideological. ...We work with those who share our goals.”

Vol. 25, Issue 39, Pages 27-28

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