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Issue's Salience May Boost Education Panel's Status

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WASHINGTON--Looking ahead to the week of Dec. 7, when members of Congress are to engage in the biennial scramble for choice committee assignments, observers expect the membership of the House Education and Labor Committee to be significantly different when the dust clears.

Most observers predict that veteran members will depart for greener pastures and some of the 110 incoming freshmen will take their place. But it is difficult to predict either the magnitude of the change or whether the panel will gain eager new members or draftees resigned to an assignment they did not want.

The question is whether the committee will continue a trend that began in 1990, by increasing in importance and prestige, or will revert to its status in the 1980's as an unpopular committee governing unpopular programs.

"If you look at the history of Education and Labor, sometimes it's been a hot committee and people wanted to be on it,'' said Bruce Hunter, the associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "Sometimes they have to draft people, and in the 1980's they had to draft people. It wasn't the most popular committee.''

During that period, the panel operated with "temporary'' members, who served in addition to their regular committee assignments and accrued no seniority.

Active Agenda

Mr. Hunter, other lobbyists, and aides to current members of the committee suspect that the panel will continue a rise in prominence that started in 1990, when half a dozen freshman sought seats on the committee. Several of them later played key roles in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

"I would be surprised if new members didn't want to be on it,'' said one Democratic aide.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Robert H. Michel of Illinois, the Republican leader, said some freshmen Republicans are interested. "While not in the first tier of committees we get requests for, it is a popular committee,'' she said.

Some said the committee's desirability should be increased by a high-profile agenda.

The panel will have jurisdiction over several of President-elect Bill Clinton's priority proposals, including retraining and apprenticeship programs and a loan program that would allow students to repay their debts with national service.

Congress is also scheduled to reauthorize most elementary and secondary education programs, and a variety of pressures are pushing lawmakers to aggressively refocus the programs. Reauthorization of the Education Department's office of educational research and improvement, technical amendments to the Higher Education Act, and a revamped family-leave bill are also pending.

Combining an active agenda "with the fact that Clinton is interested in education makes the committee attractive,'' said an aide to Rep. Dale E. Kildee, D-Mich., who chairs the Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education Subcommittee.

Not in Demand

But it appears that few incoming lawmakers, including the dozen or so with backgrounds in education, are actively seeking membership.

Roll Call and Congressional Quarterly, which surveyed the freshmen, found that new members were most interested in Energy and Commerce, Agriculture, and Public Works and Transportation.

The powerful Appropriations and Ways and Means committees are in the most demand, but vacant slots there are likely to be filled with veterans switching assignments, and few, if any, freshmen will attain them.

The most popular committees allow members to safeguard particular interests in their districts, while the more "universal'' Education and Labor panel does not.

Choice assignments also are the source of more political capital, in the form of campaign contributions, visibility, and institutional influence.

"Education is an issue that everyone is concerned with, but there's not a whole lot of political support in it compared with, say, some of the Ways and Means issues or the Energy and Commerce issues,'' said a Democratic aide.

Other Priorities

Even some of the members identified by Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call as interested in the education panel turned out to have other priorities when they or their aides were contacted last week.

Corrine Brown, a new member from Florida, is one example. A former state legislator and college professor, the Democrat has a history of advocating on behalf of children, and said in an interview that she would welcome a seat on Education and Labor. But she is also interested in Public Works and Transportation.

"I am very interested, but I have a problem,'' Ms. Brown said. "I've found that [committees] are pretty exclusive, and you can't serve on but one. I'm trying to make choices.''

Perhaps tipping her hand, Ms. Brown declared, "I'm going to let my views on education be known whether I'm on the committee or not.''

One new member interviewed last week did say that Education and Labor is his first choice. In a year when resurgent Democrats will be trying alter the education debate, it is ironic that the interested newcomer is Roscoe Bartlett, a Maryland Republican.

Mr. Bartlett, a retired professor, said he is hoping to stress such issues as private school vouchers, a national testing system, and local control over schools.

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