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Every Student Succeeds Act

Sausage-Making Fest: How Passing ESSA Compares to Today’s Health-Care Fight

By Andrew Ujifusa — June 20, 2017 4 min read
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Democrats—and even some Republicans—are really unhappy with what they see as a lack of transparency around writing the Senate health care bill. And that got us thinking about the process that lead to the Every Student Succeeds Act, which became law about 18 months ago. Remember how lawmakers agreed on ESSA? We’re guessing you’ve forgotten about most, if not all of that. So we thought we’d take a peak back into the past, and compare the legislative process behind ESSA to the current fight over changing federal health care law.

Here’s perhaps the most important point: The overall process behind ESSA was much more transparent by any standard than the political scrum behind the House passage earlier this year of the American Health Care Act, as well as the Senate’s current closed-door negotiations over its own health-care overhaul. But that doesn’t mean ESSA was conceived and brought to term entirely in the sunlight, or that it was entirely free of stumbles.

Need an abbreviated history? Here it goes: The House education committee passed its version of a new federal education law in February 2015 following a normal process, including a committee markup. The bill initially stumbled on the floor. In the end, roughly five months went by, an eternity in political time that allowed for plenty of arm-twisting and public debate, before the full House approved a bill that eventually morphed into ESSA.

On the Senate side, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the leader of the Senate education committee, unveiled his draft version of a new federal K-12 law in January 2015. His committee began hearings later that month, but it didn’t approve a bill until April. By the time the full Senate took up that legislation, it was early July. The Senate passed its education-rewrite bill in mid-July. Then things sort of went dark for another four months until November. That’s when House and Senate negotiators announced an agreement on the Every Student Succeeds Act.

So where does the history of ESSA differ from the health care fracas in Congress right now?

  • There was a lot of debate, and plenty of time for it. Nearly seven months went by between the start of the 114th Congress in 2015 and votes by both chambers to reauthorize federal education law. There was concurrent back and forth about amendments and what should and should not be in the bill. Before the full House vote on its bill, for example, 14 amendments were considered. On the Senate side, Alexander told us last year that in crafting the Senate bill, “We talked to every single Senate office. And that is unusual, and it paid great dividends.” And speaking of public input and debate ...
  • Both House and Senate education committees went through the old-school legislative process. What we mean by that is, the bills were drafted, considered, and voted on committee pretty much the way you’d expect before moving them along to a vote in their full respective chambers. That part of the process basically followed the School House Rock script.
  • There was bipartisanship. That was particularly true in the Senate, where Alexander and the top Democrat on the education committee, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, worked together between January and April to come up with a compromise bill. Alexander touched on bipartisanship as well as process when he told us last year that: “Patty and I worked well together, and I took her advice on how to try to get a bipartisan bill on a very complex issue, which is something that had eluded us for the last two Congresses.”

But where are there similarities between the sausage-making that went into ESSA and the current health care fight?

  • The bill had trouble in the House. Remember how the House’s first attempt this year to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) went awry? In February 2015, the House scrapped an initial vote on its fed-ed law rewrite. Just like with this year’s Obamacare fight, the House vote on what eventually became ESSA was killed because of conservatives’ concerns about the bill. And there’s one final parallel: The final House vote on its education-law overhaul was very close, just like the vote on the American Health Care Act vote earlier this year.
  • There was some secrecy behind getting ESSA done. The Senate has been taking a lot of flak during its present-day health care rewrite for keeping the process pretty much in the dark. And in the latter half of 2015, the House and Senate talks that produced a conference report (the agreement that would ultimately get signed into law) were kept pretty close to the vest by negotiators for months. In fact, a conference committee voted on a “framework” of the bill that the public hadn’t even seen. And lawmakers made wonky but important changes to that framework behind closed doors, pretty much until the last minute. Why the secrecy? Lawmakers were scared of spooking House Republicans and dooming the bill’s chances. Once the bill passed the House, they were much more willing to talk about the policy behind ESSA. We may see a similar dynamic with health care.

Video: ESSA Explained in 3 Minutes