Alexander Not Planning to Press ‘Grand Swap’ if Re-Elected

Last week Sen. Lamar Alexander said that if he’s re-elected he’ll once again start pushing legislation to grant the states more control over education policy and public-school management decisions.

If he wins his Senate race, and Republicans gain control of the United States Senate, the two-term incumbent will likely helm the upper chamber’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Alexander, who himself served as U.S. Department of Education secretary in the administration of President George H.W. Bush, made the announcement after Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam released information about a review of Common Core that his administration is launching.

Returning control over education to the states has long been an issue that Sen. Alexander advocates. Going back at least three decades to his time as the Volunteer State’s governor, Alexander has said he favors a “Grand Swap,” in which the states have full control of education and the federal government assumes all the responsibilities for administrating Medicaid.

In a 2012 Wall Street Journal op-ed, Alexander wrote that he first proposed the “Grand Swap” to President Reagan, though it ultimately went nowhere.

In a joint session of the General Assembly in January 2013, shortly after announcing his decision to run for a third term in the U.S. Senate, Alexander pitched several ideas for dealing with unfunded federal mandates that he said are soaking up money that states could use for other pressing needs, like education.

Alexander promised the Tennessee Legislature he would introduce legislation in Congress “to enact the Grand Swap I proposed to President Reagan in the 1980s.” He described the legislation in straightforward terms: “The federal government (would) take all of Medicaid, and the states take an equal amount of other programs more appropriately funded and managed at home, such as education and such as job training.”

At the time, the Maryville Republican acknowledged to reporters after his speech that it would be a long slog uphill to get legislation like that through the Democratic Party-led Senate. But he also said the chances of its being taken seriously were “improved by the fact that there’s a lot of attention on how the Medicaid program is bankrupting the states.”

“Medicaid is going to ruin the states,” Alexander said to reporters. The former University of Tennessee president added that the high cost of Medicaid to the states was the “main reason” for rising tuition prices. “It’s squeezing the life out of our colleges and universities in Tennessee.”

But while Alexander indeed appears to be pressing for more state control on education, he has yet to carry through on his pledge to try and release the states from responsibility for handling Medicaid. Since he made the remarks to state lawmakers, he’s filed no “Grand Swap” legislation.

A spokesman for Alexander, Brian Reisinger, said the “Grand Swap” isn’t on his to-do list, though it “continues to represent his ideal vision.”

“If Republicans take over the majority in the Senate, Sen. Alexander wants to focus most immediately on three issues: repairing the damage done by Obamacare, fixing the No Child Left Behind law, which has been overdue for reauthorization since 2008, and reauthorizing the Higher Education Act,” wrote Reisinger in an e-mail.

The healthcare reform plan that seems most likely to come out of a GOP-led Senate, developed by Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Richard Burr of North Carolina, would keep some of the GOP-preferred aspects of Obamacare — such as allowing children to stay on their parents insurance plan through 26 — but would change or completely scrap several others.

One of the biggest changes would be to alter federal Medicaid funding by essentially giving the states a set amount of block-grant money to use in the most cost-effective ways to provide services to the state’s enrollees. The amount of money a state receives would be determined by the number enrolled in Medicaid.

Reisinger indicated that Alexander sees no conflict between the senator’s idea to put all Medicaid decisions and costs in the hands of Washington D.C., and the Republican plan to give the states a set amount of money and full discretion of policy decisions.

“As a firm believer in the Tenth Amendment, Sen. Alexander believes if the federal government isn’t going to manage and pay for its own Medicaid program, states should have as much flexibility within Medicaid as possible,” Resinger wrote.