Politico: Just who is the Democrats' new ed, labor committee leader?

January 5, 2015
In The News

Rep. Bobby Scott probably didn’t think he’d be the one wrestling with House Republicans over education bill language and spending levels in the 114th Congress.

Scott, the House Education and the Workforce Committee’s new ranking member, was suddenly up for the post last spring, after former ranking Democrat Rep. George Miller announced plans to retire and New Jersey Rep. Rob Andrews, who was the next-most senior Democrat on the committee, abruptly resigned amid an ethics investigation. That unexpectedly pushed Scott, a 12-term Democrat from Virginia, to the front of the line. Rumors that Rep. John Tierney might mount a challenge evaporated when the Massachusetts congressman lost his primary race.

The chain of events left Hill-watchers and aides scratching their heads and asking: Just who is Bobby Scott?

Scott’s main areas of interest, juvenile justice for example, have been consistent over the years, as is his focus on grounding policy making in research and data. But as a new ranking member he is still developing his plans for big education bills like No Child Left Behind and the Higher Education Act, and he’ll likely have to hit the ground running as Congress mounts a new attempt at rewriting NCLB in the new year. Fellow Democratic committee members have meanwhile been huddling with Scott and are hoping he’ll keep their priorities — some of which they think were overshadowed during Miller’s tenure — in mind.

Scott, 67, was a lawyer and state legislator before winning his congressional seat in 1992. He has two decades of experience on the committee and played a part in reauthorizing key education laws, including the 1997 rewrite of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. But in recent years, he turned his attention to the Judiciary Committee, where Scott leads the subcommittee on crime. Ever since, he hasn’t played a big role in education policy.

Scott’s politics are full of paradoxes. He’s endorsed by Democrats for Education Reform, but his rise to ranking member also elicited a cheer from reform opponent Diane Ravitch. (“Things should get interesting in D.C.,” Ravitch quipped on her blog.) He said he sees himself lining up with Miller on many education issues but he’s skeptical of charter schools, which Miller championed. In the higher education arena, Scott has signed on to multiple letters from the Congressional Black Caucus opposing the Obama administration’s gainful employment rule in recent years, putting him at odds with most Democrats, especially those to the far left who think the federal government should be doing even more to crack down on for-profit colleges.

But as ranking member, Scott will have to weigh his own beliefs with those of other committee Democrats and the rest of the caucus when carving his path. His reach will be limited by the Republican Congress — perhaps even more so than Miller’s was in recent years. Unlike in the Senate, House Republicans most often don’t need Democratic support to move legislation, which diminishes Scott’s ability to affect legislation.

Another question swirling about Scott: What kind of leader will he be?

Scott does not have an imposing presence like Miller. And he’s not outspoken about himself or his agenda — quite the contrary. When interviewed for The Hill’s “50 Most Beautiful People” list in 2012, Scott skirted even the fluffiest questions about himself. “When asked in a recent interview how he maintains his health and sanity amidst the whipsaw life of a member of Congress, he provides a four-minute answer on the budget and sequestration,” The Hill wrote, adding that “if ‘policy’ were an emotion,” Scott would be “one of the most expressive people on Capitol Hill.”

But lawmakers and aides note two qualities in Scott that have already defined his approach to leading committee Democrats in the next Congress: He’s a coalition-builder who pores over data and research.

Scott will be “a member’s member,” said Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge, an ally of Scott’s who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, to which Scott belongs. “He’s very, very easy to get along with.”

Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva, who is on the committee and co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said he’s hoping for more of a focus on diversity from Democrats going forward.

“The battle on that committee always ends up being on the turf of the kids that need help the most,” Grijalva said. “We need to defend that.” That includes diversifying the staff so there’s more knowledge of issues pertaining to English-language learners, a big issue for Grijalva.

Scott told POLITICO he’s going to take the same approach to leading the education committee as he did to leading a Judiciary subcommittee: Make decisions based on research and evidence and use that data to ground conversations and avoid political snares.

“If you focus on research and evidence you can make a lot better decision than you can make than with slogans and sound bites,” Scott said. “They make jokes about how no politician ever votes against a crime bill named after somebody. I have.”

One area where Scott sees a solid research base is early childhood education, and he has repeatedly cited early ed as a priority. Though Scott hasn’t yet sketched out many of his other policy views as ranking member, juvenile justice has been Scott’s signature issue in recent years and he said it will continue to be a major focus. His Youth PROMISE Act, which Scott in the past introduced in both the judiciary and education committees, would use prevention and early intervention to stop youth violence. Increasing college access is another priority, Scott said. He’s also deeply interested in labor issues including pension reform and raising the minimum wage, which isn’t always the case for committee members.

One common thread in many of Scott’s policy positions is making sure people have the opportunity to do what they want to do and that they aren’t unfairly treated, a lobbyist noted.

Members of Congress who didn’t share Miller’s affinity for education reform see opportunity in the turnover. Miller was one of several senior, pro-reform members of the committee to depart from Congress in the last year.

Rep. Mark Takano, a former teacher and who joined the committee last year, said that he thinks there will be “more voices on the Democratic side of the committee” in 2015.

“I feel like I’m coming onto the committee at a good time,” Takano said.

But several Democrats who have left had particularly strong experience in higher education: New York Rep. Tim Bishop was a long-time college administrator, for example, and New Jersey Rep. Rush Holt had a background as a physicist and professor.

When Congress moves to next reauthorize higher education law, “there’s a lot of people who would have had a lot to say about that who won’t be around to say it,” Bishop said.

However Chairman John Kline, and many active Republicans of the committee, will remain, which will ensure consistency even though Republicans including Reps. Tom Petri and Buck McKeon retired at the end of the last Congress.

To view online: