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The Ins and Outs of Spring on Capitol Hill

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WASHINGTON - As surely as cherry blossoms announce the coming of spring in Washington and a rising humidity level presages summer, a rite of another sort inaugurates the education appropriations season on Capitol Hill.

On the day when the bill covering the Departments of Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services is scheduled for subcommittee markup - May 26 this year - lobbyists and journalists with a stake in the proceedings begin lining up in a corridor of the Rayburn Building. They know they can count on hours of impatience and frustration in a peculiar ritual that harks back to the days when many Congressional decisions were made in the proverbial smoke-filled room.

Last week, as they waited, they chatted among themselves, while advocates rushed to shake the hands of subcommittee members about to enter the committee room to begin hammering out a fiscal 1989 budget for the federal agencies under their purview.

At the appointed time, many of the interested parties took seats in the committee room.

And, as he does every year, Chairman William H. Natcher, Democrat of Kentucky, called the meeting to order and promptly ordered it closed to the public.

Dutifully, the observers accepted exile in the corridor.
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The second part of the ritual begins when the subcommittee finishes its task: a frantic, all-out competition to learn the funding levels the legislators set, a game in which there are rarely any winners. The allocations set by Mr. Natcher's panel are not made public until the full Appropriations Committee takes up the legislation, usually about two weeks later.

The closed markup is such a certainty that looks of surprise were exchanged when Representative Joseph D. Early, Democrat of Massachusetts, last week voted against the closure motion.

"You just get more work done this way,'' said Mr. Natcher's chief aide on education issues. "People can take off their coats, roll up their sleeves, and get down to work.''

"When there are other people in the room, there is much more commotion,'' the aide said. "We want to get the markup done as quickly as possible.''

The absence of observers also removes some pressure on the appropriators, allowing them to discuss more frankly the advantages and disadvantages of funding this or that program.

"They can bargain more freely when the spotlight isn't on,'' another House appropriations aide commented.

For reporters, the closed markup means a delayed story, and sometimes a long wait in the corridor with nothing to show for it. For lobbyists, it represents a missed opportunity.

"If there's a problem from our perspective, it's that we only have two opportunities to urge members to correct [a low allocation],'' said Susan Frost, executive director of the Committee on Education Funding.

At an open markup, advocates can push their position then and there, or at least have a chance to talk with legislators before the full committee acts. But Mr. Natcher's system means change must be sought on the House floor or in the House-Senate conference that hammers out a final bill.

"We haven't had to do that in a long time,'' Ms. Frost was quick to add. "Mr. Natcher's marks for education, given the resources available to him, have been quite adequate.''
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Why, then, do subcommittee watchers take part in the annual corridor routine?

"This is kind of a spring ritual,'' one lobbyist said.

"I came here hoping that they would see us here and say, 'Why not just go ahead and open it,''' said an optimistic education advocate.

"A lot of what you see of our behavior, showing up at things even though we know we're not going to get in, is showing our interest in the issue,'' Ms. Frost explained. "There is an expectation that if you are really concerned, you will show up.''

Reporters show up in case it turns out to be the year Mr. Natcher has a change of heart, or in hopes that a subcommittee aide will throw them a scrap of information.

It rarely happens. Mr. Natcher, who does not talk to the national press, frowns upon leaks.

The Kentuckian belongs to a relatively small group of legislators who were around in the era when committee chairmen could be absolute tyrants, and most serious Congressional work was done in closed session.

Several appropriations subcommittees other than Mr. Natcher's still work behind closed doors, and some markups are closed for reasons of national security. But the trend on Capitol Hill has been toward more openness.

For example, the Senate subcommittee that is the counterpart to Mr. Natcher's has not held a closed markup in many years, according to aides and observers.

The difference is in the panels' leadership. The Senate subcommittee is chaired by Lawton M. Chiles, Jr., Democrat of Florida, a "very strong advocate'' of open meetings, and a chief sponsor of "government-in-the-sunshine'' laws, according to one of his aides.

The panel's ranking Republican, and its chairman when his party was in the majority, is Lowell P. Weicker Jr. of Connecticut, another fierce advocate of open meetings.

Mr. Weicker would "scream like crazy'' to prevent a closed markup, an education lobbyist said.

But Mr. Natcher is one of the old school. So observers will be around next spring, and while they will be hopeful, they will not expect any surprises.

Staff Writer Reagan Walker contributed to this report.

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