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Federal File: Blue notes

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Many observers were surprised when Rep. William D. Ford, D-Mich., announced that he would retire this year, just four years after assuming the chairmanship of the House Education and Labor Committee.

Perhaps the melancholy notes he has sounded during his final days in Congress shed some light on that decision, for Mr. Ford has repeatedly expressed concern over partisan sniping and the willingness of politicians to be swayed by the latest poll numbers.

"I served here when it was fun to be a Congressman," Mr. Ford said in a speech at the Committee for Education Funding's annual awards dinner late last month. "[Now], attitudes have hardened and become mean and contentious."

The C.E.F., an umbrella organization made up of numerous education associations, paid special tribute to Mr. Ford's 30-year career.

The lawmaker expressed similar sentiments this month during a House-Senate conference on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, when a colleague suggested that if Mr. Ford and other Democrats did not accept school-prayer language backed by conservative House Republicans, an attempt would be made to send the bill back to the conference committee.

"We used to try to keep the heat off our colleagues," Mr. Ford said, referring to the committee's tradition of working in a bipartisan fashion on education bills. "Now, we want to put it on them."

In an interview this summer, Mr. Ford said he was troubled by the barrage of phone calls lawmakers received from home-schooling parents during floor debate on the E.S.E.A. They flooded switchboards over concerns that provisions of the bill would subject them to licensing by school districts, which lawmakers said they would not do.

It was an example, Mr. Ford said, of a small group of people disproportionately influencing policy.

"It's so easy now to stir up so much noise and anxiety so quick," he said. "I'm afraid some of the newer members have become so overwhelmed by the attention they get from these hot-button pushers that they panic at any moment."

Mr. Ford apparently agrees with observers who predict that these trends could lead to an erosion of representative democracy. His critics, of course, would say that what concerns Mr. Ford is simply democracy at work.

--Mark Pitsch

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