Stafford: Republican Rebel During Reagan’s Revolution

By Reagan Walker — November 02, 1988 6 min read
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Washington--Looking back over 35 years in politics--28 of them in the Congress--Senator Robert T. Stafford sees a profound transformation in the public’s attitude towards the federal role in education.

“When I first ran in an election, it would have been political suicide to suggest that there was a federal role in education,” the Vermont Republican recalled in a recent interview.

Yet, as he prepares to leave the Senate, the soft-spoken Mr. Stafford can plausibly claim that his belief in the importance of the federal commitment has fully carried the day.

“Both Presidential candidates seem to recognize that the effort to throttle down the federal role in education during the early Reagan years was a mistake,” said Mr. Stafford. “It’s a cliche, but I think people really are understanding that education is the future of our country.”

That sea-change in American politics is one for which Mr. Stafford is in no small part responsible.

As the senior Republican on the Senate Education Subcommittee, he played a major role in most of the education legislation passed by the Congress over the past two decades.

Allied with Senator Claiborne Pell, Democrat of Rhode Island, Mr. Stafford helped guide through such major pieces of legislation as the Education for All Handicapped Children of 1975 (pl 94-142), the Higher Education Act of 1986, and this year’s reauthorization of elementary- and secondary-school programs.

All of his work on such measures, he said, was governed by the principle that the federal government must guarantee access and equity in education.

“The fundamental responsibility continues to lie at the state and local levels, but the federal government should continue to fill the vacuum,” Mr. Stafford observed.

Opposition to Reagan Proposals

If there was one moment in Mr. Stafford’s long career that earned him the unwavering gratitude of education lobbyists, it was during the early 1980’s when, as chairman of the Education subcommittee, he led the opposition to the Administration’s efforts to scale back federal education programs.

At the high tide of the “Reagan revolution,” during the budget debates of the spring and summer of 1981, Mr. Stafford dug in his heels and refused to accept Administration proposals to consolidate most education programs into a single “block grant” to each state.

Although the reconciliation bill that passed that year cut education funding and combined some programs, it largely preserved the existing structure of the federal education effort.

Mr. Stafford also blocked the Administration’s efforts to dismantle the Education Department. In effect, he refused even to consider the idea, and so it died without much of a struggle.

“It took a man of Bob Stafford’s fortitude, stature, and quiet determination to stand up and say “no” to the education cutbacks proposed by an Administration of his own party,” said Mr. Pell. “I fear that without him at the helm, education would not have weathered the storm as well as it did.”

Polly Gault, who was the subcommittee’s staff director during Mr.8Stafford’s chairmanship, recalls that the battles in those years were particularly difficult for him because he did not like confrontation and wanted to cooperate with his party’s new President.

‘You Decide To Disagree’

“But when you feel as Bob did that the President is wrong to collapse education programs into one big block grant or to drastically slash funds,” Ms. Gault said, “you decide to disagree.”

Mr. Stafford’s efforts did little to endear him to the more conservative members of his party in those years. “I would never describe our relationship with him as hostile. It was very businesslike,” recalled White House aide Gary L. Bauer, who was serving as undersecretary of education at the time. “We simply didn’t agree.”

Partnership With Pell

Senator Stafford credits much of his legislative success to his partnership with Mr. Pell.

“We are both quiet, and we both like to get things done, and we don’t like a lot of publicity while we are doing it,” the Senator from Vermont observed. “We have a lot of the same views of the federal role in education, so we have had a very friendly relationship.”

The two men have shared control of the education panel for a dozen years. Mr. Stafford took over the chairmanship from Mr. Pell in 1981, with the gop capture of the Senate, and returned it in 1987, after the Democrats had regained control.

“To the two of us, it has not mattered who was chairman, for partisanship has not entered our partnership and has not disrupted ourel10lbusiness,” said Mr. Pell in a farewell statement to Mr. Stafford.

Staff members concur that the two senators consistently set the tone for bipartisan cooperation.

“We have always worked under a collaborative guideline, and I think other members of the subcommittee have learned to appreciate that framework,” said one.

Ms. Gault agreed. “Our marching orders were to work things out with Mr. Pell, then work to accommodate others, such as the Administration and other subcommittee members,” she recalled.

The only difference he noticed when he moved from ranking minority member to chairman, Mr. Stafford said, was that he had to show up at the subcommittee meetings on time.

A Long Career

He has mixed feelings about leaving the Senate, Mr. Stafford said. But the regret is tempered, he added, by the pleasure of knowing that now, as never before, education’s champions speak in a “loud, collective voice.”

In deciding at age 75 not to seek re-election for another term, he has closed out a political career that began back in 1953, when he became Vermont’s deputy attorney general.

Before coming to the Senate, he had already established himself as one of the Green Mountain State’s most popular politicians. He was elected attorney general in 1954, lieutenant governor in 1956, governor in 1958, and member of the U.S. House in 1960.

And in 1971, he was appointed to fill the Senate vacancy created by the death of Winston L. Prouty.

Now, in departing from the Senate, Mr. Stafford will both take his name and accomplishments back to Vermont and leave them behind.

For millions of college students, the most prominent reminder of the Stafford record will be his name, affixed to one of the federal government’s largest student-aid programs.

In March, the Congress renamed the Guaranteed Student Loan program in his honor; it is now the Stafford Guaranteed Student Loan Program.

And this year’s elementary- and secondary-education bill also was named for Mr. Stafford and Representative Augustus F. Hawkins.

Moreover, Mr. Stafford’s probable successor is cut from the same cloth. His Vermont Republican colleague, Representative James M. Jeffords, is favored to win Mr. Stafford’s seat in next week’s election.

Mr. Jeffords, who has served as ranking minority member of the House Education and Labor Committee, is expected to carry on Mr. Stafford’s tradition of Yankee independence and support for education.

Finally, Mr. Stafford leaves with the affection of many of his colleagues, who have seen in him a gentle man who fought for what he believed in without resorting to confrontation.

“His unfailing compassion, wit, and sensitivity to the needs of those less fortunate in our society will be sorely missed,” said fellow Republican Senator Lowell P. Weicker Jr. of Connecticut.

A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 1988 edition of Education Week as Stafford: Republican Rebel During Reagan’s Revolution


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