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Federal File: Eating crow

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Senator Tom Harkin thought he would needle Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander a little bit last week regarding recent comments by Bush Administration officials blaming the Los Angeles riot in part on Great Society social programs.

But Mr. Alexander demonstrated a superior knowledge of legislative history, and the Iowa Democrat was the one who got stuck.

At a hearing of the Senate Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee, which Mr. Harkin chairs, Mr. Alexander finished his opening statement on the fiscal year 1993 budget by acknowledging a serious error by his department.

The agency grossly underestimated the number of applicants for Pell Grants in the 1991-92 academic year, a mistake that will wreak budgetary havoc.

The Secretary added an assurance of his and President Bush's commitment to the grant program.

Mr. Harkin decided to seize the opportunity "to note for the record that the Pell Grant is one of those Great Society programs.''

Bush Administration officials, in comments regarded by liberals as a wide-of-the-mark effort to finger Democrats, had blamed dependency fostered by social programs initiated under President Lyndon B.Johnson for the recent rioting.

Mr. Alexander pointed out to Mr. Harkin that the Pell Grant program was actually enacted during the Nixon years.

"No, 1965,'' said the chairman, referring to the year when both the Higher Education Act and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act were passed.

"I think we're right on this,'' the Secretary responded.

After Mr. Harkin protested further, Mr. Alexander said he would no longer "disagree with the chairman publicly.''

The hearing continued until the senators recessed briefly for a vote.

Upon their return, Mr. Harkin said he had spoken on the Senate floor with Senator Claiborne Pell, the Rhode Island Democrat for whom the grant program is named, and was informed that it was indeed created under the Administration of former President Nixon--in 1972.

Mr. Harkin said Mr. Pell also informed him that he first introduced a bill to establish the grant in 1969, four years after the H.E.A. established Guaranteed Student Loans.

"For the public record I want to admit that you were right and I was wrong,'' the chairman said.

Mr. Alexander accepted the apology graciously, saying that he would surely be wrong sometime in the future.--M.P.

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