In the days leading up to Betsy DeVos' confirmation to head the U.S. Department of Education, staffers for U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Kentucky) were fielding dozens of calls every day from people urging the representative to vote against her nomination.
Of course that was impossible. Confirmation votes take place in the Senate, not the House, where Massie is a member.
Still, Massie says he was moved to action. On the same day—at nearly the exact same moment, thanks to text messages with Sen. Rand Paul, Massie says—DeVos got confirmed by the Senate, Massie deposited into the hopper on the floor of the House a one-sentence-long bill calling for the abolition of the U.S. Department of Education.
Now, when they receive complaints about DeVos, Massie's staff informs callers that the congressman is trying to get her fired.
"I've got nothing against DeVos," says Massie. "It's really that I want to eliminate her position."
In remarks delivered Wednesday at a forum hosted by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, Massie admitted that his bill has a "slim chance" of passing Congress in its current, terse form. He hopes the bill will "start a discussion" and believes there's a good chance of passing something that eliminates portions of the Department of Education or otherwise trim the department's budget or role in American education.
Eliminating the department's 4,500 Washington-based employees would save more than $400 million annually in government overhead costs, something that might find some favor with lawmakers struggling to grapple with the federal government's dire financial situation.
And then there's the man in the White House. President Donald Trump on Wednesday signed a new executive order directing the Department of Education to review its own activities and determine if it has overstepped its authority, as The Washington Post and others have reported. Trump and DeVos also have talked about plans to eliminate Title II funding for teacher and administrator training along with cutting other aspects of the department's budget.
"We may have a president, for the first time since Reagan, who would actually sign this bill if it shows up at his desk," says Massie. "I think there is a reason to take it seriously."
Catherine Brown, vice president for education policy at the Center for American Progress, disagrees.
"It's one sentence," said Brown, who also spoke Wednesday at Cato's event. "In my view it's not a serious proposal. It would take much more than one sentence to dismantle this agency."
It's true that a one-sentence bill does not allow for much detail about how the various functions of the Department of Education would be offloaded to other departments or handed down to the states. Practically, those details would have to be worked out during the legislative process, Massie says.
There are likely three directions things could go, if the bill gets far enough for that debate to happen.
Some programs in the Department of Education could be shifted to other parts of the government. Student loan programs could run through the Treasury, or job training programs could be moved into the Department of Labor, in the same way that school lunch programs are already run by the Department of Agriculture, for example.
Brown says that would mean a lot of shuffling around and extra spending on moving trucks, but would not yield much budgetary savings.
A second option would be block granting those programs down to the states, essentially letting each state decide whether it wants to prioritize, say, higher education subsidies or pre-K programs. That would allow for state-level experimentation, Massie says, letting state governments find new and better ways to hand out student aid dollars that would flow from the federal level.
But states make mistakes. Brown pointed out that Texas had placed caps on special needs programs for more than a decade, as part of an effort to reduce the cost of educating special needs students in Texas public schools. The state Senate voted earlier this month to remove those caps, but some students might have gone through nearly their whole K-12 education without access to programs that other special needs students have, she says.
Of course the federal government can make mistakes too. Do you trust Betsy DeVos or Donald Trump more than you trust local officials or state-level ones? A federal Department of Education (or the lack of it) is no guarantee of good policy, and officials have to take responsibility for their actions whether the federal government is involved or not.
The third option, Massie maintains, would be to stick to the basic approach that his bill uses. Let states do the revenue raising and the spending on their own. As for the federal employees working in the department? Let them find jobs in the private sector.
That may sound cold, Massie admits. "But at the end of the day when you cut government spending, you are going to have to cut government jobs."