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Education Opinion

Actually, Boehner’s Resignation Doesn’t Change the Odds on ESEA

By Rick Hess — September 28, 2015 3 min read
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On Friday, House Speaker John Boehner announced that he’ll be stepping down at the end of October. This decision concluded five long years of caucus clashes between Boehner and the House’s Tea Party wing and, in edu-world, occasioned much speculation about what this means for ESEA. After all, for the first time since 2001, the House and Senate have both passed reauthorization legislation which they’re now working to reconcile. The conventional wisdom was that Boehner’s announcement makes the odds of ESEA reauthorization much longer.

I see things a little differently.

First, keep in mind that 99.9% of the currents buffeting House Republicans have nothing to do with education. They have to do with more fundamental fights, some rational and some less so. Whether the outcome of these fights helps or hurts education legislation is purely incidental. Nobody knows how all the leadership shuffling or budget fights will play out, or what that’ll mean for the policy agenda.

Second, as I’ve noted time and again, the odds have been against reauthorization all along. Even after the House and Senate passed their respective bills in July, the odds of getting a bill done were never higher than 25% or maybe 30%. Getting things this far is a credit to Kline, Alexander, Murray, and their staffs— but don’t overestimate how close they are to the finish line. The House’s Student Success Act (SSA) barely made it through on a 218-213 vote, and any House-Senate compromise is going to include Senate provisions that will alienate some House conservatives. Meanwhile, with Secretary Duncan denouncing key elements of the SSA as unacceptable, it’s long been unclear whether a conference committee satisfy both House Republicans and the Obama administration.

Third, it’s not clear that Boehner’s departure will matter much for ESEA’s chances one way or the other. The conventional wisdom was that Boehner would help bring a conference bill and persuade Republican members to vote for a compromise bill. There are a couple problems with that take. For one thing, it’s not like Boehner has had a lot of success steering the caucus or that his imprimatur on a conference bill was going to be a huge plus. He’s been at loggerheads with the 40 or 50 members of the House Freedom Caucus for years and his bringing a conference bill to the floor was going to be one more round in that fight. For another, the odds are that Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy will be the next Speaker— and McCarthy has a much better relationship with the Freedom Caucus than Boehner has. He might also catch a break from some members simply because he’s not Boehner. (Don’t misunderstand me: the schism in the House GOP is deep, real, and going to persist. But the shift from Boehner to McCarthy could make it a bit more likely that a few things happen in the short term.)

Fourth, most House Republicans didn’t go to Washington to wrestle with the details of education legislation. They’re focused on reducing the size of the federal government, reversing the depredations of the Obama years, and tackling the federal debt. They’re willing to back an ESEA that broadly comports with those aims. The Freedom Caucus has proven pretty resistant to leadership glad-handing, and that’s probably going to again be the case with ESEA.

Finally, Boehner’s departure might matter more for ESEA if he and Obama had developed a different kind of relationship. If they had a strong personal bond, you could see Obama and Boehner perhaps being in a position to trade a few key concessions to help make a deal happen. But they don’t have that relationship, so it’s not like the change from Boehner to McCarthy (or whoever) is going to sabotage that kind of deal-making.

Bottom line: the odds of ESEA reauthorization weren’t good before Boehner’s announcement. The likelihood a bill would get done was probably no better than about 25-30%. After Boehner’s announcement, not a lot has changed.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.