Republican John Kline, who represents Minnesota's 2nd Congressional District, was appointed chair of the House Education and Labor Committee on Wednesday.
Kline currently serves as the committee's ranking Republican member. He spoke with MPR's Tom Crann on Wednesday about his goals for the next legislative session.
Tom Crann: Now that you're the chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, what's the most important issue on your agenda for this next Congress?
John Kline: I think the most important agenda for my committee, and all committees in the next Congress, is the economy and jobs. And we will be stepping up in my committee and the other committees to address those issues, to bring certainty to employers and employees so that we can start the private sector hiring again, and get the economy going and get Americans back to work.
Crann: Give us an idea of what your committee can do in that regard, in creating jobs.
Kline: One of the first things we have to do is look at uncertainty. And there's a great deal of uncertainty out there with the health care law, so we'll be addressing that. There is some uncertainty out there about union organizing. There was this whole card check effort. We will put that to rest.
The point is that we want to do things that will give the private sector, the employers, the confidence to step out and start making decisions that will allow them to start hiring people.
Crann: First, the issue of health care. A lot of Republicans ran on the idea of repealing health care reform legislation. You yourself have said you would prefer to be able to do that. Would you still like to see a repeal of it?
Kline: I would. If we could repeal the whole law, we would get rid of a great deal of uncertainty. And then we could come back and start working on pieces of legislation which would help lower the cost of health insurance, of health care, and allow people to be insured. As long as the law is in place and under all of these legal challenges from states across the country, there is still a great deal of uncertainty.
So when I talk to small business owners, for example, or large businesses, corporate boards, they don't know yet ... how this is going to sort out because these legal challenges haven't been resolved. They know there are things that are problematic.
There's been a lot of talk, for example, particularly on the part of small businesses, about getting rid of this requirement to submit a 1099 form, a tax form, to each one of their vendors every time they do $600 worth of business. And so I think that we'll be addressing those things very, very early.
Crann: When it comes to repeal, that's not likely, given the Democratic president and the Senate. And so given that it isn't likely, where do you see change possible without the repeal? Where can you start?
Kline: That's what I was indicating. If you take that issue of the tax forms, the 1099 forms, there is bipartisan recognition that that should be repealed. In fact, there was a move afoot way back before the election to bring it up. Speaker Pelosi wouldn't let it come up. Frankly, she knew there were a lot of Democrats who would vote for that, and all Republicans. And there still is bipartisan recognition. In fact, the president of the United States said that was the kind of thing that he could work with Republicans on to fix.
Crann: What's at issue here with the 1099s?
Kline: The issue is if you're in a business, you may have tens or even hundreds of vendors. And the ... health care law would require you to fill out and submit a 1099 tax form to each one of those vendors every time you do $600 (worth of business) ... and submit the forms to the IRS.
So if you're in a small business, that's a very, very large administrative burden that they're not prepared to take. And it has the perverse effect of encouraging or incentivizing the small businesses to actually reduce their number of vendors, so they don't have so much of that paperwork to do. And that's the wrong direction to go when you're trying to create jobs.
Crann: In your acceptance of the chairmanship, you said in a statement you want to create a smaller, more accountable federal government. We hear that a lot. But give us an idea of what specific programs -- where would you cut?
Kline: Let's look at the education area, for example. We identified, in the 111th Congress -- the Congress that's now in the lame duck session -- over 60 education programs that have been judged by outside observers, and by people in government, and by Democrats as well as Republicans that are simply not performing. They're redundant, duplicative. They're failing to do the job.
Crann: Give us an example of a couple of those.
Kline: You have something like a multiple literacy program that is simply not doing the job that it's supposed to be doing. And we ought to go at that. As I said, there's some 60 of these, and I don't have the list here in front of me, but some of those already have a bipartisan recognition that they're just not effective, even the (Even) Start program. Even Start doesn't necessarily equal literacy. So there are programs in there where I think we can get agreement, we can move out, and we can eliminate those programs, reprioritizing where we spend money.
Crann: You've been critical of the Department of Education, especially its bureaucratic structure. Is that a criticism based on a (stance) philosophically against the idea of a department of education? Or do you see inefficiencies there that could be cut?
Kline: It's a little bit of both. There was not a Department of Education until President Carter took an agency that was part of HEW (Department of Health, Education, and Welfare) and made it a Cabinet position and created the Department of Education.
That didn't create the federal government involvement in education. That had been there for a long time ... and fundamentally that was to allow monies to be shifted to areas where there are large numbers of poorer students, created this whole Title I funding issue, which is at the heart of federal involvement in K-12 education.
The federal role has grown, and it grew sharply under President (George W.) Bush when he introduced No Child Left Behind. We now know that's the law. That is the elementary and secondary education act called No Child Left Behind. And I've heard from principals and superintendents and teachers and parents, Democrats and Republicans that there are major problems with that law.
Crann: What do you see (for) the future of No Child Left Behind, if you say there is criticism of it from educators, from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle?
Kline: We absolutely have to make changes. I think there's bipartisan agreement that the law needs to be changed. We have been discussing that in a bipartisan way for the whole last year. Now we have a very new Congress coming in, and we have to sort of get to know those new members. I've got 87 new Republicans walking in to Congress.
I've spoken briefly with Secretary (of Education) Arne Duncan. I'll be meeting with other colleagues as we look at ways that we can approach No Child Left Behind, and get enough agreement that we can make the kind of changes that people keep saying that they want.
And I'm hearing again, it sort of doesn't matter whether you're a Democrat or a Republican, there's a sense that the federal government has intruded too far into K-12 education, in making decisions that many of the teachers and the principals and others feel that they can make without the federal government telling them how to do it.
Crann: As you see it, what sort of a role should the federal government have in K-12 education? Should it have any role?
Kline: We're going to have to look at the department. Part of our role in Congress is to provide oversight, and go and look at each department, not just the Department of Education, and see what are the programs? What are the agencies in place? What are they doing? Is there value added there? Is that something that's best pulled back and given back to the states?
I feel that the federal government has gone too far. It has too much of a role in K-12 education. I think there's a growing sense of that. And so we'll be looking to pare that down. ...
Thanks to such things as the documentary "Waiting for Superman," and just observations of millions of Americans, there's a growing recognition that, in many areas, our public schools are simply failing to do the job. And so there is a sense that we need to fix that, and so it's a tension between wanting to step up and fix it, and not do it in a way that we make the Secretary of Education the nation's school superintendent. I do not support that. So we've got a lot of work to do as we look at making those changes that need to be made.
Crann: Let's talk about the president's compromise plan with leaders of your party to extend unemployment benefits for more than a year, as well as extend the Bush-era tax cuts for all Americans for another two years. What do you think of the compromise?
Kline: I think the key word there is it's a compromise. I'm in the minority party. My party, the Republican Party, doesn't get to write this legislation. It is something that's been worked out. I think it's very, very important that we give as much certainty to the economy as we can, to employers and employees alike, and extending all of the current tax rates, the marginal rates, for two years is helpful. I think it would've been much more helpful if they would've been permanent or if it would've been extended further.
There are some other aspects of the law that I think are helpful. There's some expensing for capital improvements. There's a reduction in payroll taxes for Social Security. There is tax relief. As you point out, though, it's a compromise. It doesn't have everything I want.
The extension of the unemployment benefits so that you can go up to 99 weeks -- not in Minnesota, by the way -- but in many states you can go to 99 weeks, and extending that ability for the next year, not adding an additional year on top of the 99 weeks. There's some confusion out there. This just allows current law to be extended for 13 months. There's almost $60 billion in cost, and it's not paid for. There are no other reductions. So I'm not happy about that, but I intend to vote for this package as it sits before us now.
Crann: You mentioned there's some room to cut in education programs. What about jobs programs? As you try to add more jobs to this economy, where would you cut there, at all, to reduce the size of government? In other words, how do you balance that?
Kline: That's part of what our job is ... Congress has the responsibility, as does the administration, to look at government and set priorities. For example, for the last year of the 111th Congress, we didn't have a budget. The Congress, for the first time since 1974 or so, didn't even bother to try to pass a budget. So it makes it impossible to set priorities.
That's sort of a first order of business in every Congress. You need to step up, put a budget out there, debate it, debate what those priorities are, and then move forward on how you're going to spend the taxpayers' money, consistent with the budget that you've agreed on. And so, (it's) not a simple thing for me to sit here, talking with you today, and say, "We're going to cut this program or that program."
We need to look at the totality of the budget and start setting priorities through an open process of debate and amendments, something we haven't seen here for, literally for years now, so that members can bring their own suggestions up, bring their own amendments up, present them, debate them, get a vote on them.
(Interview edited and transcribed by MPR reporter Madeleine Baran)