WASHINGTON -- The dirty little secret about President Bush's education bill is that his top adviser on his top issue doesn't like the thousand-page measure passed by the House on Wednesday. Secretary of Education Roderick Paige has told friends it is a bad bill. His lieutenant, Deputy Secretary-designate Gene Hickok, agrees.
Paige was urged by an education expert to publicly express his alarm that the White House has acquiesced in ripping the real reforms from the president's original proposal. After all, his fellow Texan presumably could not sack the African-American former Houston school superintendent. Nevertheless, Paige, as a newcomer to national politics, is not about to challenge the president in a four-month-old administration.
Challenging Bush policies would constitute a profile in courage. The president's team has relentlessly pushed his legislative program. While his tax cut reflects mainstream Republican thinking, Bush on education plays the role of POW Col. Nicholson in "The Bridge on the River Kwai," who became obsessed with building a bridge for the enemy. The prowess of the presidency has been exerted to pass a bill drafted to Democratic specifications.
This was not what Rod Paige signed up to support. Parental choice and local flexibility, the heart of Bush's plan, have been eliminated, while spending was increased and testing approved. Frail Republican hopes of improving this Nicholson bridge on the House floor were definitively crushed last week by the Bush high command.
Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, chairman of the Education and Workforce Committee, received marching orders from the White House. All amendments had to be cleared by his Democratic counterpart -- Rep. George Miller, a 100 percent liberal voter from California. Since Miller never would cross schoolteacher unions, Bush has handed an indirect veto to his bitter foes in the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.
A House standing committee chairman is not obliged to take orders from presidential staffers. But Boehner, working his way back after being deposed as the Republican conference chairman following the 1998 election, was at their bidding.
When Boehner shut down conservative amendments, a whip check showed 80 or more Republicans ready to vote against the president's top-priority program. To prevent that catastrophe, a few amendments were permitted for this week's two-day debate.
But not many. An amendment to substitute the president's original bill was not permitted; it might have been adopted. Permission was granted to offer the Senate's Straight A's provision for a demonstration project granting flexibility to local schools, but that proposal (sponsored by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy) is a pale version of Bush's original idea. What's more, the president is not for it -- and all Miller-opposed amendments. After being summoned to the White House Tuesday night, its sponsor -- Republican Rep. Jim DeMint of South Carolina -- agreed to withdraw the amendment.
Conservative Republican House members who the past eight years yearned for a Republican president find Bush is a mixed blessing. They are awed by his power. Old friends, like the Christian Coalition, abandon them on the education bill. Republican Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan was startled when notified that the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) will score as negative a vote for Hoekstra's amendment against annual federal testing.
Since Paige and his unconfirmed colleagues have been dealt out, who convinced the president to build this bridge for the enemy? Republican House members finger two White House aides brought from Texas: Margaret LaMontagne and Sandy Kress.
How much LaMontagne is out of touch with Republican cultural values can be judged by her reaction, on C-SPAN last week, to census data showing a decline in the traditional family. "So what?" she asked. Kress, who was a Democratic activist in Dallas backing Michael Dukakis for president when I first met him, told me Tuesday the White House did not support even Kennedy's version of Straight A's because "to have a bloodbath on the House floor is not worth it."
George Miller, who normally eats Republicans for breakfast, and other liberal Democrats paraded to House microphones to praise what's left of the president's bill. Republican financial donors gathering at the vice president's residence Monday night recognized the enemy's bridge. They cheered Dick Cheney's mention of the president's tax and energy programs; his reference to the education bill was greeted with deadly silence.