Why Did the Republican-Controlled Senate Confirm John King As Secretary of Education?

John King, the former Education Commissioner in New York State, was dumped by Governor Cuomo who also enabled him to move on to the Senior Advisor to Secretary of Education Duncan, and, when Secretary Duncan resigned after seven years President Obama appointed King as Acting Secretary, and, with the support of the Republican majority nominated him as Secretary of Education.

The Senate confirmed King: 49 – 40. (See roll call here)

The “No” votes were 39 Republicans and one Democrat – Kristen Gillibrand from New York State. The “Yes” votes were all Democrats and seven senior Republicans.

Eleven Senators failed to vote: the three presidential candidates (Sanders, Cruz and Rubio), the two Ohio Senators, campaigning for the Tuesday primary.

In this toxic partisan political climate how were the two parties able to work together to confirm King?

In the House the Tea Party rules; if the forty plus Tea Party Republicans oppose a bill it will not come to the floor. A Speaker who requires Democratic votes to pass a bill simply would not survive. While the Republicans hold an overwhelming majority the emergence of the Tea Party voting bloc divides the House into three factions, the “traditional” Republicans, the Tea Party faction and the Democrats. The Tea Party Republicans may only represent forty of the 435 members; they control the flow of legislation.

The Senate has a far different culture.  The rules of the Senate require sixty votes for a bill to move to the floor, the opposition party, today the Democrats, can prevent a vote on any bill. While the Republicans are a majority, and control the flow of legislation and control the ultimate vote on the floor the rules allow the Democrats to prevent bills from coming to the floor. The cloture rule requires sixty votes and the Senate currently is composed of 54 Republicans, 44 Democrats and two Independents (Sanders and King of Maine) who caucus with the Democrats.

The Senate is a highly collegial body – the Republicans and the Democrats need each other for the institution to function – relationships matter. The leadership – McConnell on the Republican side and Reid on the Democratic side may jab at each other, members work together to pass legislation.

Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray, a Republican and a Democrat decided that they were going to lead the way to re-authorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, aka No Child Left Behind, they were able to use both powers of persuasion and the collegial nature of the Senate to craft a bill that satisfied the needs of members from both sides of the aisle.

The confirmation of King was a continuation of the Alexander-Murray collaboration. How often do you see the two Republican leaders of the Senate, McConnell and Cornyn joining Democrats to approve a bill, or, in this case, a confirmation? The answer is never, or, let’s says never except in the case of the confirmation of John King. Lamar Alexander convinced the Republican leadership, and, a few other colleagues that he “needed” their votes. The McConnell message to the Republican troops – yes, you can vote “No” on the confirmation – we have enough votes to satisfy Lamar.

On the Democratic side only Kirsten Gillibrand, the junior Senator from New York voted “No;” a tribute to the power of the opt out parents. Over 200,000 parents opted their children out of the federally required state tests, these parents were Republicans and Democrats, and the action was a political action not affiliated with a political party. The opt outs in New York have become a political movement and Gillebrand responded to the cries of the opt outs. Grass roots politics works!!

Gillibrand responded to a bubbling anger, anger, so far, not directed at a particular candidate in any particular election. Andrew Cuomo, the Governor of New York, withdrew his harsh teacher evaluation plan and supported a list off “recommendations” adopted by the Board of Regents in an attempt to mollify the opt outs. Gillibrand, a smart politician, listening to the crowd, voted “No” on the King confirmation.

Why was Gillibrand the only dissenting Democrat?

Simply put – national politics.

Afro-American voters are the key for a Democratic victory in November, and, a key to a Clinton nomination. A “No” on King could discourage Afro-American Democratic voters from voting in the Democratic column.

Over the next few months a negotiated rule-making process (Read the very interesting process here) will result in the promulgation of the regulations implementing the new ESSA statute. The new Secretary of Education, John King will decide on the final rules.

Lamar Alexander and presidential politics allowed the Senate to confirm King.

Alexander secured his place in history and his Republican colleagues, after voting to approve the original ESSA bill were able to continue to express displeasure with the president by voting against his appointee.

Hamilton (Federalist # 9) and Madison (Federalist # 10) both grappled with the issue of factions. Madison wrote,

AMONG the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction

Today our three branches of government appear to be faltering as “violence of faction” impedes the ability to govern, in this single instance the factions were satisfied and the system worked.

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