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New Subcommittee Chairman Ushers In New Budget-Making Priorities

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With more than 2,000 children from military families attending schools in the Chicago-area district of Rep. John E. Porter, R-Ill., it is no surprise that he is a longtime champion of impact aid, the federal program that helps pay for the education of such students.

Some observers were quite surprised, however, when the appropriations panel Mr. Porter chairs recommended cutting the program's funding by $83 million in its fiscal 1996 spending bill.

Mr. Porter had launched a high-profile campaign this spring to urge the House Budget Committee's chairman, Rep. John R. Kasich, R-Ohio, to abandon a recommendation to kill impact aid--which Mr. Kasich eventually did.

But Mr. Porter, who this year became the chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, soon relinquished the lead role in the effort.

"Maybe there was self-inflicted pressure from knowing other programs were in the same position," said John B. Forkenbrock, the president of the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools.

In a speech last month, Mr. Porter said that appropriations is no longer "a process of addition" but a "process of priority setting."

"And over the next few years," he said, "it will be a process of downsizing government."

Indeed, the bill his panel produced would trim the Education Department's budget by 17 percent, or $3.9 billion, over all.

School lobbyists understand that Mr. Porter was operating under tight budgetary constraints. But they note that the bill would raise the budget of the National Institutes of Health by 6 percent, and they say they had hoped a chairman with an interest in education would at least spread the pain more evenly.

"The big news is that education is no longer a priority for investment," said Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, an umbrella group here that represents education organizations.

Parochial Concerns

Still, the chairman has not given up on his old cause entirely.

His proposed $645 million appropriation for impact aid--an 11 percent drop from this year--surpasses by $26 million the amount the House Budget Committee and President Clinton proposed.

It also includes a $10 million increase for the handful of districts that educate particularly large numbers of military-connected children--including the North Chicago school system that Mr. Porter represents.

"Is he looking out for his own district? It's quite true, but he makes no apologies for that," said David Kohn, Mr. Porter's press secretary. "The impact-aid program for those districts is the difference between life and death."

Superintendent James Harris of the North Chicago schools said almost half of his 4,200 students are connected to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, which, of course, pays no property taxes. The district received about $2.6 million in impact aid this year, and it makes up more than 10 percent of the district's budget.

"We would expect [Mr. Porter] to go to bat for us," Mr. Harris said. "We depend on those monies."

Mr. Porter also helped broker a deal last month in which appropriators put $35 million into the Defense Department budget for the schooling of military dependents who live off base.

"He firmly believes that some impact aid will have to come out of defense to gain respect in coming years," Mr. Forkenbrock of NAFIS said.

However, while Mr. Porter has worked quietly to take care of his constituents, he emphasizes that the time when grantees could expect annual spending increases for federal programs has passed.

"That culture is over," the 14-year appropriations veteran declared in a recent speech.

In an interview, he rebuked Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley for calling the 104th Congress the "anti-education Congress" because of proposed cuts.

'Agonizing' Choices

Still, he said, deciding which programs would be cut or eliminated was "agonizing."

"John cares deeply about education. This was not something that was easy for him," Rep. Bob Livingston, R-La., the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said in an interview. "I think he has used good judgment to weed out useless and redundant programs."

Some observers say Mr. Porter went to bat for the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, President Clinton's school-reform strategy, but the G.O.P. leadership insisted that its funding be eliminated. Mr. Porter would neither confirm nor deny those reports, although he did say that the bill reflected opinions other than his own.

But Mr. Porter also opposed his peers and the G.O.P. leadership more openly during deliberations on the spending bill. At his subcommittee's markup, he helped defeat a plan to use $30 million from Title I to fund private school vouchers for low-income children.

During consideration by the full committee, Mr. Porter chastised colleagues for adding riders to his legislation, making the traditional argument that non-appropriations language does not belong in spending bills.

His protests, largely unheeded by Republicans, won Democratic praise. "Mr. Porter has tried valiantly to produce a product that has a chance to go somewhere," said Rep. David R. Obey, D-Wis., the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.

Mr. Porter also opposed a Livingston amendment that shifted $190 million from family planning to other health programs.

"On one hand, he's cutting a lot," said Adele Robinson, the director of government affairs for the National Association of State Boards of Education, but "he's also bucking the trend. One couldn't say he's taking a simple approach."

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