President Clinton wanted Congress to focus on educating America's children last week, but lawmakers decided it was the executive branch that needed to learn a lesson: Don't try to govern without us.
House members, furious that Mr. Clinton tried to implement his national testing scheme for fourth and eighth graders without consulting them, voted late Tuesday night to explicitly forbid the president's plan. The lopsided vote (295-125) was a huge setback to the Administration, which viewed testing as one of its top priorities for the year.
But conservatives' euphoria over the House vote was tinged with anger over political dealing on the other side of Capitol Hill. GOP Senators, led by Dan Coats of Indiana, originally planned a strategy similar to that of their House colleagues: Authorize a $270 billion budget for federal health, education, and labor programs, but attach an amendment forbidding the president from spending any of that money on national testing.
At the last minute, however, Sen. Coats replaced his tough amendment with one much more to the president's liking. The revised language, which passed 87-13, allowed national testing to go forward, provided the tests were strictly voluntary and were developed by an independent board, rather than by the Department of Education.
Many conservatives were furious at the compromise. "We're calling this the Sen. Turn-Coats Amendment," said Mike Farris of the Home School Legal Defense Association. "We invested a lot of time in urging people to support the [original] amendment on the guarantee that he'd take a firm and principled stand. Instead, the White House offered him trinkets in changing meaningless nuances, and he sold out."
The problem, as Mr. Farris and others see it, is that such programs never seem to remain voluntary for long. Sooner or later, federal funding becomes contingent upon cooperation, and states have to knuckle under. Schools administering a national test would, in all fairness to the students, have to teach the material on the test. That would create a de facto national curriculum, wresting control of education from parents and local school boards.
Such a scenario was "totally unacceptable" to Rep. Bill Goodling (R-Pa.), sponsor of the House bill to prohibit testing. "We don't have any business, in my estimation, at the federal level setting curriculum and having a national test," he told WORLD the day after the vote. "The whole thing was just bizarre, and I hope it's behind us."
But thanks to the Senate compromise, much of the battle over testing is, in fact, still ahead. Negotiators from both chambers will meet in conference for several weeks to iron out differences and to craft a single spending bill for the departments of Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services. Rep. Goodling is afraid his tough amendment may be sacrificed by negotiators eager to reach an agreement.
Although one aide describes him as "literally the nicest guy I've ever met," the soft-spoken Mr. Goodling is prepared for a nasty fight to make sure that doesn't happen. He told Newt Gingrich and other Republican leaders that "if they sell me out in conference, don't ever come to me again looking for support. I will not support you on anything."
Mr. Goodling's position as chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce-along with his background as a public-school superintendent-gives him considerable clout in any debate over education. But on this particular issue, he faces formidable opposition from a Republican with at least as much educational clout: former Education Secretary William Bennett, a longtime advocate of testing.
Critics charge it was Mr. Bennett who called on Sen. Coats to soften his opposition to the president's testing plan, a move that Mr. Goodling says "really disgusts me."
Other conservative leaders aren't quite so understated. "There's no question that William Bennett's backroom pressure on him is the reason Coats caved in," Mr. Farris said. "Bennett is showing his true colors now. It's three strikes you're out, as far as I'm concerned."
Mr. Bennett could not be reached for comment, but a spokesman for Sen. Coats insists that "there was no backroom arm-twisting." Press secretary Tim Goeglein confirmed that Mr. Bennett discussed the testing issue with Mr. Coats, and that the senator subsequently changed the wording of his amendment. "But it wasn't a matter of softening his stance. In the Senate we had a train called national testing coming down the track at 1,000 miles an hour and we simply said, 'What can we do to slow it down?' Sen. Coats is still philosophically opposed to the idea of national tests."
Other senators, however, were unwilling to grant that testing was a done deal in the upper chamber. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) bucked the Republican leadership and took the floor to warn his colleagues that national testing "could lead to a one-size-fits-none national curriculum dictated from Washington.... The real test before us today is whether or not the president is willing to trust parents and teachers at the local level to determine what their children should learn."
Rep. Goodling believes that fears of a testing juggernaut in the Senate were exaggerated, and that Sen. Coats's original amendment could have passed, had the leadership stood by it.
A later education vote supports the view that conservatives in the Senate were stronger than they realized. By a vote of 51-49, senators shocked the Administration by passing an amendment that would gut the budget of the Education Department. Introduced by Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), the bill takes $13 billion out of the hands of federal education bureaucrats and gives it to the states in the form of block grants. That money could then be spent as local schools saw fit rather than as Washington dictated.
Though President Clinton immediately threatened to veto the entire appropriation bill over the Gorton Amendment, conservatives were elated.
"This has the effect of banning all the programs conservatives have been upset with for a long time," Mr. Farris said, singling out Title IX, Goals 2000, and School-to-Work as examples. "The White House will now have to negotiate not just on national testing, but on whether any of these other programs will survive. They'll have to offer to sacrifice at least some of these programs."
A more likely scenario is that the Gorton Amendment itself will be sacrificed by the conference committee. With only a two-vote margin, it has no hope of surviving a Clinton veto anyway. Rather than mounting a hopeless effort to override, Republicans would likely agree to drop the Gorton Amendment if the Administration will swallow the Goodling Amendment and give up on the president's dream of national testing.
All in all, the education appropriation process has been a lesson in basic math. The president wants to add to the Education Department; Congress threatens to subtract; and the net change is zero. For Republicans, who've been in disarray much of the year, zero in this case looks like a lot.