Rep. Howard 'Buck' McKeon
Chairman, House Committee on Education and the Workforce

Interview by Leon Worden
Signal Multimedia Editor

Sunday, February 26, 2006
(Television interview conducted February 22, 2006)

Buck McKeon     "Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Multimedia Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
    This week's newsmaker is U.S. Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. Questions are paraphrased and some answers may be abbreviated for length.

Signal: Congratulations on being named chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. There have been a lot of changes in Congress in recent weeks. Is it like there's a whole new breath of fresh air?

McKeon: Exactly. That's exactly what it is. And it's something we really needed.
    Actually we we're having a pretty good year, last year, until about August. We had gotten quite a bit done. We passed the Bankruptcy Protection bill, we passed the class-action lawsuit (limitation bill), a lot of legislation. We had gotten stuff ready to pass in the fall. I expected when we got back in September, that was going to be the busiest time I'd ever had, because we had the Higher Education authorization ready to go; we had the Pension Act; we had Workforce Investment — a lot of things that we wanted to get finished last year.
    And then (Hurricane) Katrina hit. And it was just like the government was paralyzed for about a month. All we did was spend money on Katrina, and it really set us back. Then we had the (Rep. Randy) "Duke" Cunningham scandal, and we had the indictment of (Rep.) Tom DeLay (R-Texas); it was just like one thing after another was hitting. There was a lot of criticism of the president for Katrina. So it was a tough time for us. Now, Tom DeLay stepped aside (as House Majority Leader); we had an election for new leadership, and it was a exciting time.
    I had been working with (Rep.) John Boehner (R-Ohio) for about a year and a half. It started (with) about six of us, meeting with him, getting ready for running for the leadership race. So when Tom stepped aside, we were all ready to go, and we hit the ground running.
    It was actually our break; we had left Washington just before Christmas, and then this happened. I went back to Washington and helped on the campaign (for Majority Leader). It was exciting.

Signal: A year ago you wouldn't have thought this (your ascendancy to the committee chairmanship) would happen so fast.

McKeon: No. It's amazing how quickly things can happen in politics. It was like, everything we had planned just stopped when Katrina hit, and now I feel good about the way things are looking.

Signal: Boehner was the chair of the committee you now chair.

McKeon: He had been chair for the last five years. (He was an) excellent chairman, did a lot of good things. I worked hand-in-hand with him, because I chaired the Subcommittee on Higher Education. Actually the (full) committee has jurisdiction over all of education and all the workforce laws. We had three subcommittees on education: the Higher Education (subcommittee) and K-12 education, and then a select education committee that picked up some other items; and then two subcommittees on labor law.
    So I had been working closely with (Boehner) the last three years on reauthorizing the Higher Education Act. I also worked closely with him on the No Child Left Behind Act. I really learned a lot from him, and I am very happy he is now the Majority Leader, because he's going to be great for Congress and he is going to be great for the country.

Signal: It wasn't an easy thing for him to become Majority Leader. Wasn't Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., the favorite? He was DeLay's prot╗g╗, right?

McKeon: The way it works, the (Majority) Whip — we have eight elected members of leadership, starting with the (House) speaker, the Majority Leader, the whip, the conference chairman and the vice chairmen, and the secretary and policy chairman — anyway, the whip selects his chief deputy whip. When Tom DeLay was first elected as whip, he chose (Rep. J. Dennis) Hastert (R-Ill.) to be his chief deputy whip.
    When (Rep.) Bob Livingston (R-La.) stumbled onto his way to becoming speaker, it was about a half hour (to) hour race, and Denny Hastert became the speaker. When (Rep.) Dick Armey (R-Texas) retired and left his post as Majority Leader, again it was about a hour race. Tom DeLay had it sewn up, moved up to Majority Leader, and Blunt just came right along behind and became the whip.
    They tried to do the same thing this time and it stalled. I was calling lots of people on behalf of Boehner, and so was the rest of his whip team. I knew from talking to people after a couple of days that this was not going to be wrapped up. After a couple days ... I was convinced that Boehner was going to win. Because people really wanted change.

Signal: Blunt won the first round in a three-way race, right?

McKeon: The way it works, we all gather in a room, we sit in a chair so they know everybody is there. Because you've got staff people there, too, who help. But all the members have to sit in a chair and they pass us out a piece of paper. They use a different color paper for every round of voting so they don't mix up the ballots.
    It was an interesting day. We had a whip meeting just before. We all had assignments. We knew people we were watching. Because the only ones you only really know that you really count on are the ones who tell you straight to your face, "I will never vote for you, no matter what." You can count them. The ones who tell you they're with you, they might be telling the other guy, "I'm with you," and it's hard to tell.
    So we had people who we knew, and we were watching. So they passed out the papers. After they had the nominating speeches, I wrote "John Boehner" (on the ballot) and handed in my paper and I got up, and kind of kidding the people around me and said, "I am going to go look for another ballot."
    Well, they have got three members sitting up front who count the ballots, and it takes about 20 to 30 minutes. The conference chairman, after about that time, came up to mic(rophone) and said, "I have to make a sad announcement. We have more ballots than we have members."
    Well, two things quickly went through my mind. First was, Who did I say I was going to go get another ballot from? And the other was, Oh, I just can't wait to see this news story — Florida all over (again). The Republicans cant even count their ballots in their own conference. But what it was — she came back a few minutes later — staff had made an error. What they did, they took the roll to use for counting from the House floor. We have 232 members. But we also have five delegates who can't vote on the floor. One of those delegates is Republican. He can vote in the conference but not on the floor. That was the difference.

Signal: You mean from Puerto Rico?

McKeon: Puerto Rico, yeah. Luis Fortu│o is the delegate from Puerto Rico. He's in our conference, so he was able to vote. That's what threw them off.
    So after all this hubbub, they went back and counted the original ballots and she came to the mic again and said, "Roy Blunt, 110. John Boehner, 79. (Rep. John) Shadegg (R-Ariz.), 40. (Rep. Jim) Ryun (R-Kan.), 2. There was a write-in. Some people were trying to be cute. Because the way our rules work is, you drop off the bottom (one) and then have a vote with the remaining. And I guess they figured (if) cut those off, then they could keep Shadegg in it and keep it going. Well, Shadegg very honorably stepped to the mic and said, "I ask by unanimous consent that we delete the two bottom," which then put Boehner and Blunt in a runoff.
    Like I say, from the second day, I was convinced it was going to be Boehner, but at that point I was shook. Because (Blunt) only needed to pick up, on the second ballot, six votes. We needed about 40. Well that's a big turnaround. I was concerned.
    Anyway, we voted again and then we waited the 20 to 30 minutes, whatever it took — it seemed like 10 days. She stepped back up to the mic and said, "Honorable Roy Blunt," and I thought, (uh-oh), "109" — and then pandemonium. "John Boehner, 122."
    It was exciting. Because you know a lot of people worked hard, and John is just a real good guy. We had him in town here (in Santa Clarita) and had an event and had a great turnout, and I think people probably saw what a great leader he's going to be.

Signal: Shadegg is from Arizona, and some of these Barry Goldwater-type fiscal conservatives have a problem with No Child Left Behind and the Medicare prescription drug program; they think they're boondoggles. And yet, they threw in with Boehner, who co-wrote No Child Left Behind—

McKeon: Yeah.

Signal: So you have these different factions coming together, and now with you as chair of Education, what happens next with No Child Left Behind?

McKeon: Most laws that we write have automatic reauthorizations. They expire, or they come up for renewal, for reauthorization; it gives you a chance to look at them and say, "This is what we're trying to do," but this has been what's happened when it gets down to the end of the road, when it finally gets out into everywhere it has affected.
    Because the process is, you pass the law, the president signs it, it becomes law, then it goes to the department that's over it, and they write regulations, thinking they know what you were trying to do when you passed the law. And then, in the case of education, by the time it gets out to the state department(s) of education and gets down to the local school boards and into the school districts and to the schools and they start trying to implement it and put it in effect — then you start seeing, that isn't quite what we intended. So about that time, it's time to reauthorize it. And that's about where we are right now.
    No Child Left Behind is scheduled to reauthorize, the process starting in 2007. So I will have that responsibility as chairman of the committee.

Signal: Just what does it mean to be the chairman of a committee? It's not quite like chairing a City Council meeting, is it?

McKeon: It's all different. I had friends come up to me in Congress and say, "This is going to be the toughest vote you've ever taken." I said, "You don't know what tough is." When I was on the school board and we had to eliminate the sixth period in junior highs, that's a tough vote. You just don't have the money, and you just have to do it. And you have your friends in the audience, your neighbors. That's a tough vote.
    When you're on the City Council and something comes up that affects people in the city and people on both sides of an issue are riled up and you're sitting there, five people on the dais, and you've got all your friends in the audience — some against you and some in favor — those are tough votes. Because they're your friends, your neighbors.
    It's just different. There are lots of ways to serve people in your community. Fortunately I have the opportunity to serve in the Congress and represent the people of the 25th District, and that's a wonderful honor and a great responsibility. Becoming chairman of the committee is just more so.
    We have 27 Republicans, we have 23 Democrats on the committee, and we have to be able to work together, somewhat, or we have to at least keep all the Republicans together to get things passed out of committee, take them to the floor, get them passed on the floor, have a conference with the Senate if their bill is a little bit different, and try to work out all those differences, bring it back for final passage, and then get it to the president to get signed, and then see that they're being carried out properly. So it is a big responsibility.

Signal: To what extent do you, as chair, decide what comes up for discussion?

McKeon: Some of it on the Education Committee is driven by automatic reauthorization dates. No Child Left Behind will come up next year. Right now we're involved with Higher Education. In fact I just had a call before I came here from leadership; they want us to have the Higher Education reauthorization on the floor in March. So we'll be doing that. I was glad to hear that.
    So we have Higher Education; we have a pension reform bill that we're ready to go to conference, and I'm hopeful when we get back, we'll name conferees and I'll be on that conference. We need to get that done. We have the Head Start that's in reauthorization; we need to get it finished up.
    We've got a window of maybe two or three months where we might be able to get something done. After that — I don't want to be partisan and all, but we're in an election year, and it seems to be the feeling in Washington, the Democrats are going to do whatever they can to stop whatever we're trying to get done. So we have to move quickly to get as much done as we can. Because it's important work.

Signal: How big is the Republican majority in the House right now?

McKeon: We have 232 Republicans — no, we have a vacancy right now, so we have 231 Republicans and a special election coming up next month. And (there are) 202 Democrats. ... About the highest majority we've had.

Signal: And the Republicans have to keep their majority in November or all bets are off for the chairmanship and everything else you want to do.

McKeon: That's right. The way it works is, when you go back at the beginning of each Congress, the party that has the majority organizes, and the minority organizes. The majority, because they're the majority, chair all the committees. We have 19 committees in the House, and all of them are chaired by a member of the majority party. The senior member of the minority party is called the ranking member. But the majority party sets the agenda.
    You asked, how do I determine what needs to be done? I have some things that I want to work on, some competitiveness issues, some preparation of the workforce issues — I'm very concerned about where we're going to be in 10 to 15 years, what's happening in China, what's happening in India, what's happening in our education community. It's happening so quickly, things are changing so rapidly, that I want to really look at some of those things.
    I led a congressional trip for our Education Committee last year to China. We visited industry leaders, government leaders, education leaders, students, we visited a lot of their top universities. I think I'm going to India with Sen. (Michael B.) Enzi (R-Wyo.) and (Education) Secretary (Margaret) Spellings in April. They've asked me and I'm probably going to go. Same reason: to see what's happening down there.

Signal: Since your committee is controlled by the same party that's in the White House, to what extent do you communicate with the White House? Who comes up with the ideas? Does the White House come to your committee and say, "Here, we want to do this?" How does that work?

McKeon: Yeah, sometimes they do. And sometimes we say "no," and sometimes we say, "Let's work on it."

Signal: When have you said no?

McKeon: When they wanted to expand No Child Left Behind into high school last year. We said no.

Signal: Tell us about that.

McKeon: They wanted to expand the testing that we passed in No Child Left Behind in the third and the eighth grade; they wanted to move it up into high school. We don't feel — Chairman Boehner and myself didn't feel that we're ready to do that. I still don't feel we're ready to do that. I want it to go through the reauthorization and fix problems that we know that we have now with the bill.

Signal: With No Child Left Behind, what's working and what problems do you see?

McKeon: I had occasion to talk to a representative (who) happened to be from New Mexico, Steve Pearce, a week or so ago. He said, we've got schools, a lot of Hispanics in New Mexico, and parts in his district where they said, these kids can't learn, and they just weren't being educated. We have statistics that show we're only educating about 50 percent of our young people. A lot of them get diplomas, but only about 50 percent of them are getting educated.
    Steve said, since No Child Left Behind, we've required that these kids learn — that they learn to read, that they learn to write, that they learn math. And they're doing it. He said, marvelous results.
    Now, we also hear some complaints: You can't apply this to kids who have physical and mental—

Signal: Special education students.

McKeon: Special Ed children. I'm going to be holding hearings around the country and listening to people. I want to find out what all their problems are, what the good points are, what the bad points — that's what we do with all these bills when we reauthorize them. I'm looking forward to that, because I think you have to go out and find out what problems people are really running into.

Signal: A lot of teachers and administrators in the Santa Clarita Valley say they have a problem with what they call an "arbitrary" goal that every child has to meet in 2014 — including special education kids and English language learners. In the Newhall School District, 20.6 percent of all students are classified "English language learners." Why penalize a school because its English language learners, by definition, aren't proficient in English? Is it right or fair to expect them to meet the same standards that the mainstream kids are expected to meet?

McKeon: It's an interesting question. But the title of the bill is, "No Child Left Behind." OK? In the 1960s, when Title 1 was passed, the purpose was to take these kids who were about 14 percent behind the mainstream, as you call them — mostly minority students, students who just didn't get the same opportunities as most of the students in our valley get. We've spent, since that time, about $80 billion. Tests show they're still about 14 percent (behind). Where has the money gone?
    So we said, wait a minute. This isn't right. It is not right to give a kid a high school diploma that he can't read. It's not right to just move somebody along through the system. The whole society suffers from that. The individual, most of all, but society suffers from that. When you're educating 50 percent of your children, how can they go into the workforce? What can they do? What can the put back into society?
    So, I'd just like to change that question around and say: You tell me. Which kids do you want to leave behind? Which kids do you want to make a decision that we're not going to teach them to read? We're not going to require that they know math? That they're (not) going to know English?
    The bill says you will test, and you will comply with the standards that your state (sets). We don't set the standards at the federal level. Mostly, when (people) have complaints, they really ought to be talking to Sacramento about who sets the standards.
    All we're saying is, you're going to meet the standards you set, or we're not going to send you any more federal money on this issue.

Signal: Would you be open to the idea of a moving standard, based on growth and performance from year to year?

McKeon: I feel that I'm open to anything that makes sense. Are we going to go back? Are we going to go back to the old way and say we're not going to have standards and we're going to accept complacency and we're going to leave children behind? No, we're not going to do that.
    Human nature is an interesting thing. People resist change. They resist accountability. Now, I don't want to say anything about teachers or our principals or our superintendents or our board members, because — I served on a school board nine years. I know that these are good people, and most of them are really trying hard. Does that mean all teachers are (trying hard)? No. Most people understand that. They understand that some teachers maybe should be doing something else. Either they're burned out, or they don't love what they're doing, or they don't love the children. And it's not just in teaching. It's in every profession. That's the way it is. Sometimes people get into something and they'd rather be doing something else, but this is the path they've chosen and they can't get back over to another path.
    Having said all of that, I think the important thing is to hold hearings, to let people tell you what really is happening, and listen. I'm not real concerned about people who just want to come and tell us all the bad things about it. I want to hear suggestions — what you could do to improve it, what we can do to make it better. Because the ultimate goal is to make sure every child learns to read, write and do arithmetic.

Signal: We hear the flip side of it, too. We hear of kids who to College of the Canyons and get a remedial education that they should have gotten in high school.

McKeon: And we have good schools here! I was back visiting with the director of admissions at West Point. They get people from every state, and they get the cream of the crop. They get really good people. We had a young student one year, turned down — straight-A, played high school football, got turned down. (You've got to) be pretty good to go to one of these academies. Well, he said they got this young kid from one of the southern states, valedictorian, all of his life thought he was a good student. He got to West Point and he couldn't compete. I mean, you'd have to think their whole state is not up to very high standards. I'm not even going to say what state.
    The point is, we have pretty good schools (in the Santa Clarita Valley). But we could still do better. Some places could do a whole lot better. The Congress has to look out for the whole country.

Signal: Like you said, we've got pretty good schools here — so will our local school districts have special access to the committee room?

McKeon: Well, sure. (Laughter.) That's one of the advantages having your congressman, I guess, be the chairman of the committee.

Signal: Give us a thumbnail sketch of your goals and priorities this year, both for education and labor.

McKeon: My goals right now — as I said, we only have a window (of) about two or three months to really get stuff done. We've got stuff in the pipeline that's just waiting. We already passed the Higher Education Act out of committee; we're going to take it to the floor next month. We've already passed — and the Senate has already passed —­a pension bill, so we're waiting to appoint conferees; we want to get that done by April 15, before some of these companies have to put some more money in on their plans.
    The Workforce Investment Act we've already passed in the House; we're waiting for the Senate to have floor action. I had a meeting last Monday morning with Sen. Enzi, who chairs this committee in the Senate, and Secretary Spellings; she invited us in to start working together on these things. But those things — and Head Start — all of those are already in the pipeline and need to be done.

Signal: What's going to be done with Head Start?

McKeon: It (will be) reauthorized. We don't need to go back and holding hearings and start from scratch like we'll be doing with No Child Left Behind. If we can get that done this year, that will probably be great.
    Then I want to start holding hearings, gearing up for things we want to work on in the next Congress. What I would like to do in the time that I will be chair of this committee, assuming we keep the majority — I have seven years to be chair. We have (six-year) term limits (for chairmanships), but this year won't count against the term limits. So this is the year to kind of ramp up and get ready. First thing I have to do is hire staff because Mr. Boehner took about five or six key people with him.

Signal: Doesn't the House Education and the Workforce Committee staff become your staff?

McKeon: They do—

Signal: He raided it?

McKeon: Well, yeah. He took — there are people he hired there, and he's moving on. As Majority Leader he will have a staff of about 22 or 24 people. On the Education Committee we have 50 people. He has taken about five or six, and I am in the process of hiring people to replace them.
    I heard today we have one — our counsel has accepted the job, and we're waiting to hear on a person we're talking to about staff director. Then we will get the staff director involved in hiring the rest of the staff we need. We're not going to go and make any wholesale changes. Then we'll look through this year, going into next year, to see any changes we want to make in the organization chart and where I want to see the committee go in the next six years.

Signal: Where is that?

McKeon: I want to see real preparation, both in the education and the work side, of more streamlining, cutting out needless regulations and bureaucracy. I've done that in a small (way) on the Higher Education side; I want to do it throughout.
    I've already got staff looking at all of the programs that we have in the Department of Education under these areas that we have responsibility for, and at the end of six years, I want there to be fewer programs. I want there to be streamlined, more efficient programs that are doing the job that they were intended. If we have people around the country filling out reports and sending them to Washington that nobody's reading or paying attention to, we don't need those reports. I want a streamline that kind of stuff.
    I want to prepare for the realities of the next generation. You know the realities that we're dealing with now, compared to when I was a kid? There's been a lot of change. And I tell people, when I was a kid, I'd sometimes pick up the phone and somebody was talking, because we had a party line. We shared lines. Now, people have a cell phone that has a camera in it, that has a computer in it; they can quickly contact people around the world. That's a big change in reality.
    I remember the first time I saw TV. We drove from where I was living in Tujunga up to a friend's house in Santa Paula. Probably took us an hour and a half to get out there in those days. They had a black-and-white, 10-inch TV that we all clustered around. I mean, it was exciting to see this on a little screen. All we (had seen) were movies (on) big screens. Everything (on TV) was live, and I think there were two or three channels. Now we have these big, huge screens and color and you can get hundreds of channels and you can tune into things going on around the world. I mean, there's no limit. And all that has happened in the few short years that I have been here — actually it's quite a few years — but it's speeding up, going into the future. (Look) how fast it's changing now.
    When we did the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act in ┬98, I had a chart. It showed the top-10 schools, the biggest schools in the country, the universities. The largest was the University of Minnesota. It had about 50,000 students. If you took that same chart now, 10 years later, five of the top-10 schools are now proprietary schools. For profit. University of Phoenix is the largest (with) 310,000 students.
    One of the things we're focused on in the Higher Education Act is expanded accessibility. We want to give everybody who wants a college education, an opportunity to get one. University of Minnesota hasn't expanded its seats in 10 years. Who is going to provide? We've got all these new people; the country's growing; they want to get an education. That's all a big change in just a 10-year period. What's it going to be like in the next 10 years?
    The things we're working on (in) this reauthorization, we weren't even talking about five years ago in that reauthorization. Things are changing rapidly. I want to bring us into the new realities and prepare for the realities of the next generation — prepare them for the work force.

Signal: Thinking back to your time on the City Council, and before that, on the Hart school board, the buzzword was "local control." We should be able to make our own decisions. Do you still believe that?

McKeon: You bet. The government closest to the people is the most responsive. When we did the Workforce Investment Act — that was my bill — we took 60 federal job training programs, block granted (them) down to three, and sent it out to local communities for their control. We set up "one-stops" so if somebody's out of work they can go in, they can get a voucher to go out and get more education to train for another job. And that's working. Now we're reauthorizing that. We're making more improvements in it.
    When I say "local control," I am not even talking about Sacramento. I'm talking about Santa Clarita. We want to do the same thing in the coming years, because frankly, most people in Washington don't know where Santa Clarita is.

Signal: What if there's a school in Podunk, USA, that's failing because of the decisions a local school district has made? Should it be allowed to fail?

McKeon: If a school is failing, who pays the price? The students (do), don't they? They are the ones who pay the price if a school fails. So I think, while the state has the constitutional responsibility, the (federal) government does bear some responsibility. If we are putting out money to help the schools be successful with these students, then we should have some say in that.
    Do we have total control? No. We shouldn't have total control. We don't set the curriculum. We don't set the standards. We will set accountability.

Signal: You want something to show for your money.

McKeon: If they don't want the money—

Signal: Then you're looking at a whole different set of problems.

McKeon: I still think they should be concerned about the children. And I think they are. I think there's not a person on a school board in this country who isn't concerned about the children.

    See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.

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