If This Is Limited Government, We're In Trouble
As Republican fundraisers crank up their requests for limited-government conservatives to fund 2018 campaigns, congressional incumbents have a lot to answer for. For one thing, where were they when Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos made her request to reduce the size of government?
As we now know, last year DeVos boldly submitteda $9 billion year-to-year reduction in appropriations for her department. How did the Republican Congress respond? It granted the department a $2.6 billion increase in appropriations, instead of the $9 billion requested cut. With control of both houses of Congress and the presidency — and with a secretary pleading for reduced appropriations — is this the best the GOP can do? If so, loyal Republicans should be asking themselves: “What difference does my vote (or my campaign contribution) make?”
A look back at the history of the Department of Education (DoED) provides depressing insight into the seemingly insurmountable difficulties involved in reducing federal spending. For decades before DoED’s founding, progressives had agitated for a separate department. Despite the fact that education is clearly reserved as a state responsibility by the Constitution, progressives believed federal programs, regulation, and funding would provide the impetus for real improvement in the U.S. education system. Finally, in 1979, under President Jimmy Carter, DoED was established as a separate cabinet department. As has been so often the case with progressive action, the advocacy of a labor organization — in this case, the National Education Association (NEA) — was largely responsible.
During the 1970s, the NEA became increasingly involved in Democratic politics, claiming to have determined the selection of over 400 of the 3,000 delegates to the 1976 Democratic convention. Well aware of his debt to the NEA, Carter gladly proposed establishment of the DoED, and Congress complied in 1979, only months before the end of Carter’s term. However, the department faced a serious threat almost right away. Ronald Reagan, Carter’s opponent in the 1980 election, ran specifically on eliminating the infant DoED. With Reagan’s surprise landslide victory, conservatives eagerly looked forward to the quick termination of this latest Democratic federal initiative.
A combination of factors kept the DoED afloat. For instance, Reagan had higher priorities such as tax cuts and increased defense spending. Moreover, the Republicans did not control the House of Representatives at the time. Still, under Reagan appointee Terrel Bell, the department was reined in substantially from Carter’s founding vision.
But restraint did not last long. Under Bell’s successor, Bill Bennett, DoED expanded. Though an articulate champion of the Right, Bennett was never able to shrink, much less eliminate, the department. Under succeeding administrations — both Republican and Democratic — DoED has relentlessly expanded. Meanwhile, American education by every conceivable measure has fallen further and further behind both in expectations and in comparisons to other countries. In 1980, the DoED budget was $11.6 billion; by 2016 it had ballooned almost six-fold to $68 billion.
In 2016, President-elect Donald Trump signaled a definite shift of DoED policy in at least two different directions by placing a stronger emphasis on choice and a greater reliance on the states to mold education policy. His pick for Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, was a longtime advocate of choice (charter schools and vouchers) in education and an outspoken proponent of limited government. DeVos’s nomination was Trump’s most controversial, resulting in an unprecedented 50-50 tie vote in the Senate, which was broken by Vice President Mike Pence.
Despite this initial opposition and the unrelenting enmity and disparagement of the Left during her months in office, DeVos has steadfastly stood for reduced federal control of education, choice for parents, and greater reliance on the states. She has repeatedly attacked her opposition as “defenders of the status quo” — that is, the failing education system. And, in the 2018 budget process, she stood out as one of the few department heads to request a substantial reduction in appropriations for her department. This was met by howls of protest from the Left, which, in DeVos’s words, “sought to make my life a living hell.”
In an interview last year, DeVos was asked about President Trump’s past support for shutting down the DoED. She responded with a remarkable understatement: “It would be fine with me if I worked myself out of a job, but I’m not sure there is a movement in Congress to do that.” Not only is Congress not prepared to shut down the department, the Republican majority cannot even pass a reduction in DoED spending in compliance with the Secretary’s direct request.
Now, you tell me why limited-government conservatives should feel compelled to support congressional Republicans in the upcoming midterm elections.
Garland S. Tucker III is retired Chairman/CEO of Triangle Capital Corporation, author of Conservative Heroes: Fourteen Leaders Who Changed America — Jefferson to Reagan, and Senior Fellow at the John Locke Foundation.