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Chairman Ford To Quit Congress After 30 Years

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Washington

Rep. William D. Ford, the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, announced last week that he is retiring after 30 years in Congress. The move stunned education lobbyists here and stirred speculation on the direction of the committee.

In a brief statement on the House floor, the Michigan Democrat said he would complete his current term and step down at the end of the year. He assumed the Education and Labor chairmanship in 1991.

Mr. Ford said only that he wanted to spend more time with his family, and a spokesman said he did not wish to be interviewed.

"As I approach my 67th birthday, it is time for me to focus on my remaining years,'' Mr. Ford said in the statement. "I want to spend more time doing the things I enjoy and concentrating on my family, whose sacrifices, because of my career, have been immense and often painful.''

The chairman pledged to work "tirelessly'' to achieve President Clinton's legislative goals.

"I want to spend the next year here as a full-time chairman and an agent of change for President Clinton, without the demands and distractions of an election campaign,'' Mr. Ford said.

Mr. Ford's committee is scheduled to take up the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as well the President's proposed "goals 2000: educate America act'' and "school-to-work opportunities act.'' The panel is also expected to be a major player in the health-care and welfare-reform debates.

Mr. Ford's departure will open the door for Rep. William L. Clay, D-Mo., to assume the chairmanship of the committee. Mr. Clay currently chairs the Post Office and Civil Service Committee, as Mr. Ford did before he claimed the leadership of the Education and Labor panel.

Postsecondary Panel

In an interview, Mr. Clay said that he would like to make such a move, but that it would be "premature'' to discuss the details.

"There are a few stumbling blocks,'' he said. "I have to get re-elected in both the primary and the general [elections], and the Democrats have to maintain control of the House, and then I'd have to go to the Democratic caucus.''

Mr. Clay acknowledged that in his 25 years on Education and Labor he has devoted more time to labor issues than to the schools, but he said his voting record on education is identical to Mr. Ford's.

Mr. Ford also chairs the Subcommittee on Postsecondary Education and Training, and he will leave another vacancy there.

Rep. Pat Williams, D-Mont., is next in line for that chairmanship, but an aide said it was unclear whether he would give up his chairmanship of the Subcommittee on Labor-Management Relations, which is expected to play a major role in the health-care debate. Mr. Williams chaired the postsecondary panel from 1988 to 1990.

Richard Kruse, the government-relations director for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said he expects Mr. Ford to be even more feisty than usual in his last year as chairman.

"Ford will look at it as his swan song, and it will bring out the Scottish in him more than ever,'' Mr. Kruse predicted. "He's not walking away from it now; he's walking away when it's done.''

But Bruce Hunter, the associate executive director for external relations for the American Association of School Administrators, said discipline on the education committee could break down if work drags on toward the end of the year.

"I hope we get our business straightened out, because if we don't, things are going to get wild and woolly,'' he said.

Great Society Liberal

Some lobbyists said Mr. Ford's retirement had been rumored, but most expressed surprise.

Mr. Hunter said that one of Mr. Ford's close friends recently said "he hadn't seen Ford work his district like this in eons.''

First elected to Congress in 1964, Mr. Ford is an unreconstructed liberal who was present at the creation of a number of Great Society programs that he has helped refine and defend.

Lobbyists and associates of Mr. Ford, an intense partisan, said he has expressed frustration with the moderate wing of his party.

"The trend is not in his direction as far as what Democrats stand for, and I haven't heard it from him but I'm sure he's held his nose a few times,'' Mr. Kruse said.

One lobbyist who asked not to be named said the chairman had become increasingly nostalgic.

"You'd go in and talk to him about something that was going to happen tomorrow and he'd start talking about the Middle-Income Assistance Act or the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965,'' the lobbbyist said.

In 1992, Mr. Ford came off his toughest re-election fight, garnering only 52 percent of the vote in his suburban Detroit district. That year, he was forced for the third time to run in a redrawn district after the state lost two House seats.

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