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Two Bill Clintons

By David S. Broder
Thursday, January 21, 1999; Page A25


So much was made of the fact that President Clinton allowed no shadow of the impeachment trial to intrude on his State of the Union Address Tuesday night that few noticed there were really two Bill Clintons speaking in the House chamber: the president looking to the next century with a serious, constructive proposal for reforming Social Security and the former Arkansas governor who can't resist going back to tinker with state education policies that were his preoccupation during the 1980s.

Education is a national concern -- but a state and local responsibility. When Clinton was in Little Rock and Education Secretary Richard Riley was governor of South Carolina, they were in the forefront of the movement to increase spending on schools and to raise standards of performance for teachers and students.

The cause which Riley and Clinton and a handful of Republican governors championed in the 1980s has been taken up with far greater unanimity in the 1990s, as states have invested much of the proceeds of the long economic boom in improving their schools.

It is perfectly understandable that Clinton and Riley want to remain at the center of this movement. And goodness knows, they have been ingenious in finding ways to try. In the first term, they came up with Goals 2000, a packet of money states could use to help finance and measure their own school improvement plans. In the second term, they have proposed national school standards and tests and federal funds to build or renovate classrooms and hire new teachers.

This year their idea is to use renewal of the biggest federal school program -- the Elementary and Secondary Education Act -- as leverage to require states and local communities to do the things the reform movement now regards as critical: require new teachers to prove mastery of their subjects; enforce school discipline; turn around or take over failing schools; and end the practice of promoting students who have not completed the work of their current grade.

As Bruce Reed, a White House domestic policy architect, noted, "Many of the states are already doing this." Which raises the question: Why impose a layer of federal bureaucratic requirements on them? The answer, I suspect, is that Clinton and Riley want to be involved -- not just sitting on the sidelines.

But Rep. Bill Goodling, a Pennsylvania Republican and former teacher who now heads the House Education and Workforce Committee, raised the same objections that led him to sink the earlier plan for national standards and tests. As several Republican governors argued Wednesday morning: The federal government finances only 8 percent of education. It shouldn't be making those who do the rest jump through Washington's hoops.

On Social Security, by contrast, Clinton is dealing with an overriding federal responsibility -- providing a safety net for current and future retirees. Last year, he orchestrated a serious, civil national dialogue on the burdens his baby boom generation will place on this most popular of all government programs. Now he has followed with what appears to be a balanced, substantial proposal for extending the life of the Social Security trust fund and improving its returns.

It is, as he acknowledged, the starting point of a negotiating process -- not a frozen design. Those on the extremes of the debate lost no time in finding fault. Rep. Bill Archer, the Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the prospect of having the government invest a small portion of Social Security funds in the stock market was obnoxious to him -- even if it were done by an independent agency insulated from political controls. "Government-controlled investment in markets is contrary to free enterprise," he declared.

At the other end of the political spectrum, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, spokesman for a couple of dozen liberal Democrats, said he objected to the second part of Clinton's proposal, the creation of new individual savings accounts, subsidized by the government for low- and middle-income families, to supplement Social Security from investments that could -- at the individual's option -- include stock market mutual funds. "He's headed in the right direction," Kucinich said, "but I hate to see him take a detour down Wall Street."

Clinton did not satisfy the hard-liners on either side. But influential centrists on key committees -- such as Democratic Rep. Ben Cardin and Republican Rep. Rob Portman, both on Ways and Means -- welcomed the president's proposal.

Republicans who argue it's more important to cut taxes 10 percent now than to preserve and improve Social Security have a tough case to make. Maybe even tougher than impeachment.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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