A top Senate Republican who compared the Obama administration’s efforts to solicit private donations for a campaign encouraging Americans to enroll in the Affordable Care Act to the Iran-Contra scandal asked for private donations to fund education reform while serving in the George H. W. Bush administration.
On Saturday, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) criticized Sebelius for asking businesses and other community organizations to support an enrollment campaign spearheaded by Enroll America, a nonprofit organization working to convince people to sigh up for health care coverage. Alexander said Sebelius’ actions should “cease immediately and should be fully investigated by Congress.”
He cited a report by the Iran-Contra Congressional Joint Select Committee, which says “Congress’s exclusive control over the expenditure of funds cannot legally be evaded through the use of gifts or donations to the executive branch.” Since news broke of Sebelius’ activities on Friday, Republicans have argued that the secretary is raising private funds to work around Congressional refusal to appropriate federal dollars for implementation. Administration officials insist, however, that Sebelius was following authority laid out in the Public Health Service Act and “has made no fundraising requests to entities regulated by HHS.”
But in 1991, while serving as Secretary of Education for President George H. W. Bush, Lamar actively and enthusiastically sought private dollars to fund the administration’s education initiative, America 2000. The plan encouraged states and localities to commit themselves to six broad national education goals and standards and aspired to establish 535 “New American Schools” by the year 2000.
Alexander crisscrossed the country to sell the initiative on behalf of the administration after Congress failed to approve Bush’s education funding request. The president announced the formation of the nonprofit New American Schools Development Corp. and tasked it with raising $200 million to design new school models that communities can adopt, even planning a special meeting with businesses at Camp David to drum up support for more donations.
“Funds are pouring in — I don’t want to say ‘pouring,’ because we’re going to put the arm on you all on in a minute here — but funds are coming in well,” Bush said at the White House in July of 1991. “[A]lready $30 million has been raised, much of it from the corporations that are represented here today,” he added.
The administration continued to fundraise for the effort, with Alexander himself making a pitch. Responding to a Associated Press report from August of 1991, which noted that businesses are hesitant to commit additional dollars to new causes during the recession, Alexander said, “In my opinion, the more you ask for the more you get. We’ve been very timid about asking American businesses to support elementary and secondary education, tiptoeing around the edges,” he added. “We shouldn’t do that. This is a big, rich generous country and we’ve got plenty of money for all the innovations, especially innovations in excellence.”
Bush ultimately let the America 2000 legislative effort die in Congress, “gambling that he would have a second term to try once again with his initiatives.”
During remarks on the floor, Alexander sought to distinguish between the fundraising he engaged in as Secretary of Education and Sebelius’ solicitations, arguing that he was raising money for a private corporation: “Here is a private corporation that’s doing that; we encourage that. Congress wasn’t objecting to that. Congress hadn’t said, you can’t do that. Congress hadn’t been asked to vote on an appropriation for the new development corporation, and Congress had not said, you can’t do that.”
But an op-ed Alexander penned in September of 1992 confirms that Congressional refusal to fund America 2000 forced the administration to solicit private funds. Published in the The San Diego Union-Tribune on Sep. 27, 1992:
President Bush asked Congress to appropriate a half-billion dollars to redesign such new American schools. Congress balked, the business community didn’t. The president has asked American businesses to raise $200 million to fund design teams to help communities create such schools.
They’re raising the money through the New American Schools Development Corp. (NASDC), and they have already funded 11 design teams that are moving ahead with exciting, innovative proposals.