In a conversation with National Journal Group's Editorial Director Ron Brownstein, White House Domestic Policy Council Director Melody Barnes defended the president's use of executive authority and statutory interpretation to try to untangle two of the thorniest policy issues tangled up in Congress even as public pressure for action on them has mounted.
"We are moving forward based on the hue and cry from the states," Barnes said of Education Secretary Arne Duncan's move to override the provision in the 2004 No Child Left Behind Act that 100 percent of students be proficient in math and reading by 2014. Describing the law as a "slow-motion train wreck," Duncan had cited authority in the law for the executive branch approach in August, responding to concerns that the law was encouraging a lowering of standards in efforts to reach the proficiency benchmarks.
"Understand that we have national organizations. We have governors, practically every governor in the union, that have petitioned Secretary Duncan to move forward with the flexibility he's granted in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act," she said. "We have parent who have said no more of this cookie cutter one size fits all approach to education.... So the secretary is being responsive to the needs of people across the country while at the same time he is still saying we are going to work with Congress to get this done."
Meanwhile, on immigration, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has written a letter instructing enforcement to consider "individuals who were brought to this country as small children and know no other home" a low priority for the purposes of deportation, Brownstein noted.
Barnes suggested the budgetary problems the country is having were part of the administration's thinking in this area, though it has also been subjected to increasing pressure from Hispanics groups as efforts to pass the DREAM Act have stalled once again. "We have limited resources...and with limited resources we have to focus on enforcement priorities. There's no way we can use our dollars to go after every single person in the United States who is here who is undocumented." And so the administration has chosen to administratively "prioritize those who pose the greatest threat to our country."
"At the same time we have consistently said Congress has to address this, our immigration system is broken. We need to pass a law to fix it," Barnes said. "We are here, our hand out, to do so."