Paige-Congress Bond Still Weak, Some Say

By Michelle R. Davis — October 16, 2002 | Corrected: February 23, 2019 7 min read
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Corrected: We quoted an unidentified Democratic congressional aide as saying that a July briefing of the House Education and the Workforce Committee had been scheduled purposely for a time when Mr. Paige was out of town and unavailable to testify to the committee. At the time of the hearing, Mr. Paige was in fact in Washington, but did not attend the hearing.

When Rod Paige came to Washington as secretary of education, he brought with him a long list of credentials as the superintendent of a big-city district and a widely known leader in education. What he didn’t bring with him, many people here say, was political know-how, or at least the inside-the-Beltway kind.

Nearly two years into his tenure, politicians, congressional aides, and education analysts are debating whether that shortage of conventional political savvy has actually helped him cut through the insular world of Capitol Hill, or left him floundering among Washington’s policymakers.

Rod Paige

Some say Mr. Paige started off on the wrong foot with Congress. They say he was shut out of the formation of the administration’s major education initiative, the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, and never recovered as Congress began to sculpt other measures, including overhauls of special education and education research.

And his reserved style differs from that of his predecessor, Richard W. Riley, a consummate, albeit low-key, politician. Mr. Paige is not a regular in testifying before committees, and his legislative office has been without a permanent assistant secretary since June.

But others say the fact that Mr. Paige is not a gregarious Washington insider is in fact his strength inside the Capitol’s ornate hearing rooms.

“There was a learning curve, obviously,” said Sen. Judd Gregg, the New Hampshire Republican who is the ranking minority member on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. “Just because he’s not a verbose, chest-pounding maniac, doesn’t mean he’s not a heavy hitter.”

Out of Town

The No Child Left Behind Act, the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, was a signature project for President Bush and had the full attention of White House staff members. While top senators and congressmen were wrangling over the legislation’s details in 2001, Mr. Paige, according to some close to the process, was pushed to the back benches while presidential aides settled into front-row seats.

“He was not really involved at all, and that’s putting it mildly,” said Rep. Dale E. Kildee, a Michigan Democrat and a veteran member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. “The White House ran that operation.”

The Department of Education dismisses such comments, which have also appeared in news accounts. A. Clayton Boothby III, the acting assistant secretary for the department’s office of legislation and congressional affairs, said “I roll my eyes” at those assertions. “He wasn’t sitting in every meeting up on the Hill, but he certainly shaped this bill,” Mr. Boothby said.

As the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act has kicked in, and as other education measures have moved forward, the perception that Mr. Paige is not engaged in Capitol Hill politics has lingered.

It didn’t help that when the House education committee asked for an update on implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act, it was Undersecretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok, whom some consider more politically skillful, who gave the report. One Democratic congressional aide said the hearing was specifically scheduled for a time when Secretary Paige was out of town.

Mr. Kildee cited a meeting after the President’s Commission on Special Education gave its report in July, when Mr. Paige traveled to Capitol Hill to brief committee members. In the meeting, which included Mr. Kildee and the panel’s ranking Democrat, Rep. George Miller of California, Mr. Paige gave a “vague summary,” Mr. Kildee said.

“He did not appear to be involved in policy,” Mr. Kildee said. “He was not prepared to answer questions that well.”

But Rep. Michael N. Castle, a Republican from Delaware who is a member of the education committee, said he was pleased with the active role Mr. Paige and his staff have taken in overhauling the department’s office of educational research and improvement. Mr. Castle is a lead sponsor of the House version of the research bill.

Mr. Castle recalled a luncheon with Mr. Paige during the first half of 2001 in which Mr. Castle was impressed “that he had some sense of the issues ... and with the organization of the administration” on the matters discussed. Mr. Castle also said Mr. Paige is on the Hill when he needs to be and delegates other matters to his staff, as a Cabinet officer should.

Credible, Not Polished?

Politicians on Capitol Hill may not be accustomed to Mr. Paige’s style. He’s a reticent speaker whom one Democratic congressional aide described as “not a good witness” at hearings. Mr. Castle and others described Mr. Paige as averse to the pleasantries that smooth the flow of work in Congress. “He’s very businesslike, and there’s not a lot of small talk,” Mr. Castle said.

The Democratic aide said Mr. Paige did not appear to understand the clout he wields as a Cabinet secretary, failing to push issues or make specific requests of politicians. In some meetings, he appears to have “no agenda. That was frustrating and confusing,” the aide said.

But the fact that he isn’t a glib politician works to his benefit, argued Rep. Bob Schaffer, a Colorado Republican on the House education committee.

“He’s not the polished speaker, but he has abundant credibility and irrefutable knowledge of education at the level where it matters most,” Mr. Schaffer said. “There’s no shortage of people ... who can tell us about the woes and advantages of activities at the federal level, but very few people in the department are proficient at explaining how things work at the classroom level.”

It may have been difficult for Capitol Hill to adjust to Mr. Paige’s distant manner following the eight-year tenure of Secretary Riley, a former South Carolina governor who was also a policy wonk by nature, said Bruce Reed, the president of the Washington-based Democratic Leadership Council.

Mr. Riley “knew how to read a room, and he worked hard at cultivating good relationships with key committee chairmen,” said Mr. Reed, who was President Clinton’s chief domestic-policy adviser and point man on education.

Secretary Paige is much more of an administrator, said Mr. Kildee, and appears to connect more outside the Beltway, where he often travels for speeches and site visits.

Rep. Schaffer said Mr. Paige’s administrative skills, honed in almost seven years running the huge bureaucracy that is the Houston school district and as a college dean and a coach, have made him successful managing the Education Department.

Mr. Paige has a “very commanding management presence over at the Department of Education,” Rep. Schaffer said. “The chain of command is very clear under Paige.”

But the chain linking the department to the Capitol, the office that serves as the liaison to Congress, has been without a permanent leader since June 30, when Rebecca O. Campoverde, the assistant secretary for legislation and congressional affairs, left.

Ms. Campoverde, who got rave reviews from Republicans and Democrats on the Hill, is now consulting. She had worked on Capitol Hill as the Republican deputy staff director of the House education committee and in the department as deputy chief of staff during the first Bush administration.

Last month, she said she left in June because of the “crazy hours, long days and weekends,” and, in a familiar refrain for those leaving public life, a desire to spend more time with her family.

Two Capitol Hill sources say one reason for her departure was that she was seen as too closely tied to Republicans on the Hill, instead of the administration.

Filling In

Acting Assistant Secretary Boothby was Ms. Campoverde’s deputy assistant secretary and took over on an interim basis when she left. Before then, he worked on education issues as a lobbyist for then-Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, now President Bush’s director of homeland security. Ms. Campoverde’s permanent replacement—Mr. Boothby or someone else—would need a confirmation vote from the Senate.

Mr. Boothby said his 22-person office stays in close contact with the Hill, giving members of Congress advance notice on grants and other events linked to their districts. Mr. Boothby said his office’s relationship with members of Congress is “very strong.”

Mr. Paige often calls lawmakers, has periodically invited them to the agency for lunch, and make routine visits to their offices, Mr. Boothby said.

Dan Langan, a department spokesman, said Mr. Paige makes his presence felt on the Hill. “He doesn’t have to set up camp in the Capitol ... to be influential.”

Staff members who work with members of the education committees in both houses say the Education Department has remained responsive despite Ms. Campoverde’s departure. But one Democratic congressional aide said there is difficulty finding the right person to connect with at the department.

“It’s frustrating, because you don’t always have someone you can go to,” the aide said. "[Mr. Paige] doesn’t reach out to us. He isn’t about trying to bring Congress in.”

The department may be struggling to bring the White House in, too, now that the No Child Left Behind Act’s trip through Congress is receding into history, said Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont, the Republican-turned-Independent who formerly chaired the Senate education committee and continues to serve on it.

“He knows what ought to be done,” Mr. Jeffords said of Mr. Paige, “but I see little correlation between his dreams and desires and what the administration is attempting to do.”

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