E.D.'s Use of $26,750 for Bush Speech Is Scrutinized at Well-Attended Hearing

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WASHINGTON--The Stacks of camera equipment in the hallway and the crush at the press table last week suggested that the House Education and Labor Committee was discussing a highly controversial policy or heating from a celebrity witness.

But the man testifying, Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, is a familiar face on Capitol Hill, and the matter under review was small potatoes by federal standards: the payment of $26,750 in Education Department funds to a private company for the broadcast and taping of an Oct. 1 Presidential address to schoolchildren.

Representative William D. Ford of Michigan, the panel's Democratic chairman, immediately criticized the expenditure after reading a news report about the White House's tight control over the event. He then asked Mr. Alexander to appear before the committee. (See Education Week, Oct. 9, 1991.)

At the hearing, lawmakers from both parties seemed to agree that the news media appear to be more interested in covering the politics of education than the substantive issues in the field. However, the rest of their comments had a distinctly partisan edge.

Mr. Ford, for example, noted that $26,750 could send 53 of his constituents to community college for a semester or provide an extra week of unemployment benefits for 131 people. It is difficult, he said, to explain the department's expenditure to "people back home."

Mr. Ford conceded that the expenditure was legal, which is what a preliminary report by the General Accounting Office concludes. But he said it sent an unfortunate message about the use of education funds that could make it more difficult to convince the Appropriations and Budget committees to back increases in the department's budget.

He also argued that it is "improper" to use public funds for political purposes. The chairman warned that he had sent a videotape of the address to the Democratic National Committee, which will monitor the President's reelection-campaign advertisements to see if they include segments from the federally funded education address. If they do, he said, a complaint will be filed with the Federal Election Commission.

Alexander's Response

Mr. Alexander said that a message from the President is a powerful way to urge children to work hard in school and stay away from drugs. He defended the use of department funds, which he said the White House requested to pay for cameras, lights, transmission equipment, and a satellite uplink.

"It seems to me that this is exactly what the President should be doing and exactly what the Department of Education should be paying for," Mr. Alexander said. "The most important person for changing attitudes in America is the President."

Democrats unanimously supported Mr. Ford's assertions that spending education funds on such events sends the wrong message to the public, and that the White House should have footed the bill. Some also charged that Mr. Bush was paying lip service to education while offering it no financial assistance.

Some Democratic aides said privately that their employers thought Mr. Ford overreacted.

Republicans strongly defended the Administration, noting that lawmakers routinely spend public funds to pay for materials and events that are high in political value.

They said that members spend about $7,000 a day producing tapes in the House television studio, and that their committee has spent $32,000 this year holding "field hearings" that one Republican described as "dog and pony shows."

Representative Paul B. Henry of Michigan probably offered the best summation of the Republican view.

"This is an historic occasion," he said. "Never in the 203-year history of the U.S. Congress has a hearing been held on such a trivial matter."

Vol. 11, Issue 08, Page 27

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