Smith's 'Acting' Role Doesn't Trouble Him

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Marshall S. Smith has been waiting two years for a promotion, and the Senate still has no plans to give it to him.

The 60-year-old education professor has been the acting deputy secretary of education since the summer of 1996, and he was formally nominated for the job last July. Yet the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee hasn't scheduled a hearing on his appointment or a vote to advance his nomination for the agency's No. 2 slot to the full Senate.

It seems the former Stanford University dean is caught between a Democratic president and a Republican Senate. The U.S. Constitution gives the president the authority to nominate high-ranking federal officials, but their appointment also requires the "advice and consent" of the Senate.

President Clinton and Senate Republicans have jousted over other top-level appointments, such as Bill Lann Lee's nomination to serve as the civil rights chief at the Department of Justice. Mr. Clinton made Mr. Lee the acting head of the office after the Senate Judiciary Committee declined to send the nomination to the full Senate for a vote. But Mr. Smith and many others linger quietly without action.

Democrats have complained that the GOP is stalling nominations to slow the administration's agenda. But Mr. Smith maintains that the Senate inaction in his case has had no such effect.

"I would like being confirmed, but [the lack of action] doesn't impede the work I'm doing," he said in a recent interview.

Even without confirmation, Mr. Smith plays an integral role in what happens at the Department of Education. From his office in the suite he shares with Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, the scholar-turned-policymaker manages the agency's day-to-day operations. He is, for example, leading efforts to write the department's new strategic plan and head off computer glitches expected on Jan. 1, 2000. He also designs policy, such as the president's national testing and class-size-reduction initiatives. Those tasks are similar to the ones he performed as the agency's undersecretary in the first three years of the Clinton administration.

'Smith's Folly'

The policy work has its ups and downs. While the department pushed its school reform and school-to-work programs through Congress in Mr. Clinton's first term, the second-term agenda is stalled. The class-size-reduction program, for example, was left out of a tobacco bill Mr. Clinton negotiated with Senate Republicans. The future of the national tests remains in doubt, as well. ("Tobacco Bill's Defeat Leaves K-12 Plans Uncertain," June 24, 1998.)

Mr. Smith appears resigned to never winning Senate approval to serve formally in the deputy secretary's slot, a job that became vacant when Madeleine M. Kunin became ambassador to Switzerland. Instead, he expects to do much of the work associated with the job, while keeping some of the duties from his days in the No. 3 position to which the Senate, then with a Democratic majority, confirmed him in 1993.

Ironically, Mr. Smith's policy work as undersecretary may have led to his problems in securing a promotion. In designing President Clinton's national testing proposal, for instance, Mr. Smith became a "lightning rod for criticism" from Republicans, according to James P. Manley, the communications director for Democrats on the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, which handles education policy.

The testing foes' leader, Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., who chairs the House education committee, called the testing plan "Smith's folly" throughout last fall's debate over the proposal. Republicans in the Senate may be holding up the nomination in retaliation for Mr. Smith's role in writing the outline for designing the proposed 4th grade reading and 8th grade math exams, Mr. Manley said.

Some conservatives also contend that Mr. Smith has crossed a line in working with school lobbyists.

The Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, for example, documented and publicized weekly meetings between Mr. Smith and education groups to plot strategy against GOP education legislation. The meetings violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act because they were not openly advertised, the Arlington, Va.-based conservative policy group charged.

Sen. Larry E. Craig, R-Idaho, has asked the General Accounting Office, Congress' watchdog agency, to investigate the meetings.

While Mr. Smith's role in writing policy or gathering support for those policies may have contributed to the delay in his nomination, Republicans on the Senate Labor Committee refuse to explain the holdup.

"All I can tell you is we don't have anything scheduled right now," Joe Karpinski, the committee's communications director, said when asked several times to discuss Mr. Smith's nomination.

Mr. Smith is acting, however, as if he doesn't need the Republicans' approval.

Retaining the title of undersecretary "allows me to act as long as the president and secretary want me to act," he said. "If there are big costs to my being confirmed, then why confirm me?"

Vol. 17, Issue 42, Page 29

Published in Print: July 8, 1998, as Smith's 'Acting' Role Doesn't Trouble Him
Web Resources
  • Read the biography of Marshall S. Smith, from the U.S. Department of Education.
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