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Select Panel on Children May Be Facing Extinction

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WASHINGTON--A drive to streamline the operations of the House has put in doubt the fate of the House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families and three other special panels that serve as watchdogs on social issues.

Besides the panel on children, the House select committees on Hunger, the Aging, and Narcotics Abuse and Control were facing uncertain futures last week after House leaders put off bringing to the floor a resolution that would extend all four committees until Dec. 31.

There was speculation on Capitol Hill that, rather than reschedule the vote, the leadership might simply let the panels die when their authorization expires March 31. But a vote is still possible at some point, Congressional aides said late last week.

Critics of the select committees--which hold hearings and make recommendations, but do not have a formal role in adopting legislation--argue that the panels were intended to be temporary, that they interfere with standing committees covering similar issues, and that they are a waste of staff and money.

The four select committees collectively were authorized to spend nearly $3.7 million in fiscal 1992.

An early gauge of support for dropping the panels came late last month, when many Democrats joined House Republicans in defeating, 237 to 180, a measure brought up separately to reauthorize the narcotics panel for two years.

House leaders, taken by surprise, then negotiated a plan to consider a one-year extension of all four panels to allow for a review in December by the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress, a bipartisan panel studying legislative reforms.

But it was unclear last week if there would be enough votes to keep the panels alive even that long.

"It's sudden death or slow death,'' one select-committee aide said.

'Extra Eyes' or 'Mini-Fiefdoms'?

Groups supportive of the select panels rallied to their defense at a news conference here last week.

The panels "provide the Congress and the nation with extra sets of eyes and ears to identify and analyze and [with] additional voices to speak to the solutions of our nation's most pressing problems,'' said Eileen P. Sweeney, the director of government affairs for the Children's Defense Fund.

Backers say the select panels are valuable because they can study issues across jurisdictional lines.

But Tony Blankley, the press secretary to Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., the House minority whip, argued that the panels' roles could be more efficiently assumed by existing committees. He also charged that the select committees have been "flagrantly used as an opportunity to do press releases'' promoting their leaders.

A Feb. 2 Wall Street Journal editorial said the committees had become "mini-fiefdoms for grandstanders such as Rep. Pat Schroeder,'' the Colorado Democrat who chairs the panel on children.

Robert Fersh, the executive director of the Food Research and Action Center, an advocacy group, said the move to end the panels is being viewed--mistakenly in his view--as the first "litmus test'' for members beseiged by complaints of Congressional gridlock.

Freshman members have been especially vocal in opposing the panels.

"The reform movement has had a huge effect on the way members are voting,'' noted one House Rules Committee aide. Despite the prominence of such issues as child and family policy, the aide said, momentum is gathering for "anything that is going to save money and make this place more effective in the eyes of the members and the public.''

Widely Used Reports

Of the four panels, the Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families most directly addresses children's issues.

Reports on the status of poor families and the cost effectiveness of Head Start and other anti-poverty programs issued by the panel under Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., its chairman from 1983 to 1991, have been tapped widely by the education and business communities. (See Education Week, April 10, 1991.)

Recommendations in some of the panel's other reports concerning child care, Medicaid, tax policy, and foster care also have found their way into bills offered by committees with legislative authority.

Under Ms. Schroeder, its chairwoman since 1991, the panel also has helped garner support for child-welfare and anti-hunger measures and highlighted the rise in reports of child abuse, neglect, and fatality, said David S. Liederman, the executive director of the Child Welfare League of America.

"They have taken all of the critical issues affecting children and families and given them a public voice,'' he said. "This is a classic case of killing the messenger.''

The narcotics panel has monitored the status of drug-abuse-education legislation and explored how to help schools deal with drug-exposed children and deliver drug treatment.

The hunger panel, backers say, has uncovered and helped correct shortfalls in the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children; organized child-immunization drives in cities; and worked to improve federal food programs.

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