From The Coalition Column of the February 2005 Perspectives

The 109th Congress Convenes: New Cabinet Appointees Named

Bruce Craig, February 2005

The 109th Congress convened on January 4, 2005. Republican leaders in both the House and Senate declared it the "reform Congress" and vowed to do all they could to pass a complete package of governmental reforms desired by the Bush administration. Those reforms range from opening the Arctic Refuge to oil exploration to comprehensive tort reform and overhauling the Social Security system.

Most of the opening day was devoted to formal ceremonies. In the Senate, 34 senators, including the 9 new senators, were sworn in. The entire House, including the 38 new members—the smallest group of new members since 1989—also took the oath of office.
Both Republican and Democratic leaders spoke of the need to improve relations with opposition-party members, but the genial atmosphere quickly dissolved in the House as members debated new rules. Republicans passed a number of new rules—including one that allows members to take relatives other than spouses and children on official trips. They also crafted new rules regarding deadlocks in committee. In the Senate the Republican leadership decreed that if Democrats did not approve the handful of judicial nominations that they had objected to in the 108th Congress, Republicans would change Senate Rule 22, which governs the use of filibusters.

One of the first items of business for the new Congress is conducting confirmation hearings for President Bush's cabinet picks. Most are expected to sail through. Keeping to a pattern of naming trusted White House staff to vacated cabinet positions, the president named Margaret La Montagne Spellings as the nation's eighth secretary of education. Spellings replaces the 71-year-old Roderick R. Paige. Paige, the seventh education secretary in the nation's history and the first African American to assume that position, claims to have left of his own accord, though Hill insiders report that there is little doubt that the White House was unhappy with his performance. Last year, Paige drew heavy criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike when he referred to the National Education Association, the largest teachers' union in the country, as a "terrorist organization."

Spellings has been involved in shaping education policy for George W. Bush since he was the governor of Texas. She was one of the principal architects of the president's "No Child Left Behind" Act and has been his chief domestic policy adviser for the last four years. In making his announcement, the president characterized Spellings as an "energetic reformer" who has a "special passion for this cause [of school reform]." Both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill lauded the nomination and Spellings won easy confirmation.

The nomination of Alberto R. Gonzales to become attorney general was not so easy. Gonzales, who is the author of a series of White House memos that some believe "condones torture" and declares the Geneva Conventions as "obsolete" and "quaint" in light of the "new kind of war" against terror, also is responsible for overseeing the crafting of the President Bush's Executive Order 13233 that relates to the Presidential Records Act. Gonzales faced sharp questioning by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee; nevertheless, he also was confirmed.

—Bruce Craig is director of the National Coalition for History. He can be reached at rbcraig@historycoalition.org.