Could It Work?

Conservatives love to threaten it. But could they pull it off? Business Insider looked recently at the nuts and bolts of what it would take for a conservative president to make good on his threat to eliminate the Education Department.

Rand Paul is the most recent candidate to threaten. As the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are aware, my historical look at this question ran recently in the pages of Time Magazine. Conservative candidates since Reagan have pledged to eliminate Education. No president ever has.

What’s their beef? As Rand Paul explained in this 2010 speech, many conservatives assume that federal control increases the left’s culture-war power in schools.

The assumption—for electoral purposes at least—is that federal power means less local ability to say no. As Paul put it in 2010,

I would rather the local schools decide things. I don’t like the idea of somebody in Washington deciding that Susie has two mommies is an appropriate family situation and should be taught to my kindergartner at school. That’s what happens when we let things get to a federal level.

Business Insider asked law guru Laurence Tribe to explain the president’s power to make good on this threat. Obviously, Tribe explained, no president can simply eliminate a federal government department by fiat. But there are things presidents can do. They can encourage legislators to push legislation to that effect. And they can strangle government agencies by cutting funding.

In a 2012 budget proposal, Senator Paul suggested an 83% cut to the Education Department. Only the popular Pell Grant program would remain. Indeed, in that proposal to save $500 billion, Education took the biggest hit at $78 billion. The National Science Foundation would face big cuts, too, along with huge cuts (78%) to the Interior Department and the utter elimination of the Departments of Energy and Housing and Urban Development.

Paul’s bluster raises a new question, one I didn’t consider in my historical commentary. If so many conservatives threaten the Education Department, why don’t any of them actually get rid of it? As Catherine Lugg described in her history of Reagan’s early efforts, it is easier to malign the Education Department than it is to eliminate it.

Part of the reason might be seen in Senator Paul’s 2012 budget proposal. The Education Department hosts several extremely popular programs, including the Pell Grant program. Even conservatives like to win elections, and it is difficult to win when you take money away from voters. This is why we still have Social Security and Medicaid, in spite of conservative ideological disgust.

In any case, be ready for more. As the 2016 GOP contest gets rolling, the Education Department will be threatened, insulted, and demonized. The one thing it won’t be, it seems, is actually eliminated.

Leave a comment


  1. This has been a puzzle for a long time.

    As I recall, the Education department was created by Jimmy Carter and conservatives have been complaining ever since. I had expected killing that department would be an early action by Reagan. Carter was only a one-term president, and the department did not seem very entrenched at that time.

    But Reagan didn’t kill it. Bush1 didn’t kill it. Bush2 even found new uses for it.

    This must be one of the great mysteries.

  2. Yes, hardly anyone is truly serious in these polemics. How many conservative colleges refuse to take students with Pell Grants? I am aware of only one.

    Keep in mind it is those Pell Grants that keep private religious colleges beholden to Title IX and the rest of the Civil Rights Act. This is about to become a big deal again when the feds clarify the rights of LGBT citizens and either deny or allow the exemptions some states have made for religious institutions. It will probably become a question of whether a religious college is a “religious institution” or maybe a “religious business” that has first amendment rights of its own.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: