House panel braces for power change — but labor pessimistic

By Manuel Quiñones | 09/24/2015 07:30 AM EDT

At least one Republican lawmaker has begun jockeying for the top spot on the House Education and the Workforce Committee following news of Chairman John Kline’s impending retirement.

At least one Republican lawmaker has begun jockeying for the top spot on the House Education and the Workforce Committee following news of Chairman John Kline’s impending retirement.

Kline, a Republican who has represented Minnesota’s 2nd District in the House since 2003, announced earlier this month he would not fight to stay atop the panel with jurisdiction over workers’ safety issues or run for re-election next year.

"Public service is an honor I am proud to have embraced throughout my life," Kline told supporters on Facebook. "Despite the serious challenges facing America, it remains the greatest country in the world, and we are blessed to call it home."


Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) is third in line in seniority at the panel and has already expressed her intention to seek the gavel, a spokeswoman said this week. She’s also a rising presence in the GOP caucus as secretary of the Republican Conference.

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) is ahead of Foxx in panel seniority but has yet to say whether he’s also seeking to replace Kline as chairman. Wilson has relatively senior slots on the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees.

"I’m grateful to continue to serve on the Education and the Workforce Committee, where I am committed to advocating for the students, teachers, businesses and workers in South Carolina’s Second Congressional District," Wilson said in a statement provided yesterday to E&E Daily.

Kline still has more than a year left as head of the panel, but it’s unlikely much will get done on oil, gas or mining worker safety issues. He has served as chairman since Republicans took over control of the House in 2011.

Kline has said his top priority is passing legislation to replace the No Child Left Behind education law. He also promised to work to "expand access to higher education, and ensure we keep faith with our veterans, troops and their families."

Kline pointed to pension reform as "a very, very big deal." Critics pounced when he pushed to allow multi-employer pension plans to cut benefits, but Kline called it a way to keep plans from insolvency.

When it comes to energy, Kline pressed the ongoing push for workforce diversity. "We saw the energy sector, particularly oil and gas, just grow like crazy," Kline said during a recent interview. "I would use the word explore, but sometimes that’s not a good word to use."

Kline recalled hearing about workforce development efforts abroad. "They call that skilling, by the way. I thought that was an interesting term," he said. "We need a workforce for the 21st century. And we’re running behind."

One partial — and bipartisan — solution was the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act signed by President Obama last year, which is designed to overhaul federal job training programs. Foxx, one of the legislation’s authors, was standing right behind Obama, dressed in pink, during the bill-signing ceremony.

Kline also helped broker a deal with Obama over student loan rates. The president was one of the first politicians to issue kind words about the chairman when he announced his retirement.

"John’s never been afraid to stand up for what he believes in, and as the chairman of the House Education Committee he’s shown a willingness to work together with anybody — Republican or Democrat — who has the best interest of our students at heart," Obama said.

Labor’s view

Labor leaders, however, have a different view of Kline, who has helped lead Republican attacks on the National Labor Relations Board and union interests in general.

American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organization top lobbyist Bill Samuel said Kline had a 9 percent lifetime score with the group. He blamed Kline for not promoting legislation to, for example, raise the minimum wage.

Following the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine explosion in West Virginia, which killed 29 workers, Kline conducted hearings and led tougher oversight of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, but he didn’t act on mine safety bills opposed by the National Mining Association.

Kline has worked toward at least setting a balanced tone on such controversial and emotional issues. When MSHA came out with rules to fight black lung disease among miners, Kline appeared to endorse the intention without specifically embracing the policy.

"For too long a flawed regulatory process has stymied efforts to provide stronger black lung protections," he said in a statement. "No miner should go to work without the best standards in place to guard against this deadly disease."

And when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration released a proposal to protect workers from silica, Kline said, "No one should be threatened by a deadly disease because of the work they do to support a family. Eliminating the health risks posed by silica must be a national priority."

Still, Samuel said, "He’s pretty reliably conservative. The party has moved to the right, he’s moved along with it. With few exceptions, sided with corporate interests against working families."

Samuel doesn’t think a new committee leader will bring much change, even if Foxx takes over. She’s a former college administrator, and Samuel thinks she will pay close attention to education issues.

"I don’t think her record will be much different," Samuel said. "It’s a pretty conservative committee. It’s hard to see who would represent any kind of change in direction."

Political outlook

Kline served in the Marine Corps before coming to Congress. He even got to serve as President Reagan’s military aide, an experience that has shaped his career.

Now that Kline is retiring, political handicappers consider his district, in the suburbs of St. Paul, in play. Obama won the district narrowly in 2008 and 2012, and The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report has it listed as a toss-up.

Several candidates have already expressed their interest in running, including tea party activist David Gerson, who had challenged Kline in GOP primaries. Former state Sen. John Howe is also seeking the Republican nomination, and others could follow.

On the Democratic side, health care executive Angie Craig and physician Mary Lawrence were running for the seat before Kline’s Sept. 3 retirement announcement. Lawrence had more than $1 million in her campaign account as of June 30.

As for Kline’s own future, he was circumspect when asked about a race for governor or U.S. Senate, according to Minnesota media outlets.

For now, the 69-year-old lawmaker says, "It’s been an honor serving the constituents of Minnesota’s 2nd District, but there is still much work to be done."