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Federal File: Friend in the driver's seat; Undeterred; Unimpressed

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Representative Jamie L. Whitten last week agreed to relinquish day-to-day control of the House Appropriations Committee, shortly before House Democrats were scheduled to discuss the possibility of forcing him to step down as committee chairman.

The 82-year-old Mississippi Democrat suffered a stroke earlier this year, and colleagues feared he was not up to overseeing the construction of the fiscal 1993 federal budget.

This turn of events makes Representative William H. Natcher the de facto chairman. The Kentucky Democrat is the chairman of the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and is known as a champion of education programs.

"It won't hurt to have a friend in the driver's seat,'' said one education lobbyist, "but there still isn't any money.''

When a 1988 law gave judges the option of declaring convicted drug offenders ineligible for many federal benefits, including student aid, supporters said students would be deterred from using drugs. Opponents said low-income students could be denied an education due to a minor offense.

A recent General Accounting Office report concludes that both sides were wrong.

The agency found that only a relative handful of offenders were sentenced to benefit ineligibility, and the Education Department turned down only two aid requests as a result.

The report said most first-offenders, particularly those charged with possession, participate in a "diversion program'' that does not result in a formal conviction. So casual users who are the target of the law's deterrent message are not likely to be affected--even if the sentence were mandatory.

When Simon Rochester received an invitation to apply for designation as a Presidential Scholar, he was not impressed.

The letter sent to the Palo Alto, Calif., high-school senior--one of 2,600 chosen nationally based on test scores--urged him to seek local news coverage for the honor.

He did speak with the Peninsula Times Tribune. But he said he will not apply because he is unimpressed by President Bush's education record, the program "seemed completely like a publicity scam for the Department of Education,'' and the agency should spend its funds aiding schools rather than flying 141 contest winners to Washington.

The program was not created by the Bush Administration, though. It is 28 years old.--J.M.

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