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House Education Panel Is Getting a New Look

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Education's prominent role in the recent congressional elections did not translate into interest in working on the House committee that deals with federal school policy.

Five veteran lawmakers--including one subcommittee chairman--are leaving the panel for seats on more prestigious committees. When those changes are combined with the departures of six other panelists who retired, lost a re-election bid, or moved to the Senate, almost one-third of the 45 members of the Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee will be new to the intricacies of special education, student aid, vocational education, and other school issues facing the 105th Congress over the next two years.

The turnover reflects the low esteem in which most House members hold the panel, which oversees labor law as well as school policies. Veteran House members fight for seats on committees that write tax laws, set budgets, and regulate business, experts say, because they have a more tangible impact on government projects and business decisions back home.

And setting federal education policy doesn't bring the kinds of political donations and chamber of commerce endorsements members want for future campaigns.

"It's all money," one Democratic aide who requested anonymity said when asked about the exodus.

In separate organizational meetings in the week before Thanksgiving, House Republicans and Democrats put their leaders in place. In addition to renominating Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich of Georgia and Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, the parties selected committee leaders as well.

Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., will return as the chairman of the Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee, and Rep. William L. Clay will be his Democratic counterpart.

Cunningham, Sawyer Exit

In rearranging committee assignments, three veteran Democrats and two Republicans will leave the panel.

Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., will give up the chairman's seat on the Early Childhood, Youth, and Families Subcommittee, which is in charge of K-12 education.

He will move to the Appropriations Committee. He has been promised a seat on the defense-spending subcommittee, a vital spot for the former fighter pilot's San Diego-area district. In addition to working for military pay raises and contracts that might benefit area companies, Mr. Cunningham plans to use his education expertise on the spending panel, his spokeswoman said.

"He will continue to take a keen interest in education issues, especially impact aid and special education," said Lori L. Gulakowski, Mr. Cunningham's press secretary.

Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla., will give up his education seat in favor of a spot on the Banking and Financial Services Committee.

While many veterans sought new assignments, Rep. Frank Riggs, R-Calif., decided to stay put on the education panel, sacrificing his coveted spot on the Appropriations Committee in exchange for the subcommittee chairman's job Mr. Cunningham held for the past two years.

"The policy decisions we make should drive funding and not the other way around," Mr. Riggs said. "I'm very comfortable reversing roles and crafting policy decisions while still influencing [the appropriations] side of the process."

Among Democrats, Rep. Tom Sawyer of Ohio, who has been on the education committee since arriving in the House 10 years ago, and two-term Rep. Gene Green of Texas are leaving for the Commerce Committee. Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., will go to the Ways and Means Committee, which writes tax law.

Members of Congress, especially in the House, fight for spots on committees because that's where they can have the most impact on legislation. Once a bill gets to the House floor, leaders tightly control debate and the amendments that are allowed to be offered.

"It's extraordinarily difficult to influence the agenda if you're not on the committee," said Sarah Binder, a research associate focusing on Congress at the Brookings Institution, a think tank here.

Seats on the education panel were difficult to get in the 1960s as Congress enacted President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society with a host of school programs, such as Title I, Head Start, and student loans.

But in recent years, House leaders have needed to recruit members to join. ("Issue's Salience May Boost Education Panel's Status," Nov. 25, 1992.)

Vacancies Remain

Since the Republicans won control of Congress two years ago, the Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee--formerly known as Education and Labor--has continued to hold little allure. That is reflected in the fact that four of 25 Republican seats are still vacant. GOP leaders will fill the empty slots next month, Cheryl Jacobus, a committee spokeswoman, said.

"Education as a catchword has become a Democratic issue," Ms. Binder said.

While Democrats will lose three veterans on the education panel, the new Democrats on the panel are: Ron Kind of Wisconsin, who is replacing retiring Rep. Steve Gunderson, a veteran Republican who served on the education panel; Carolyn McCarthy of New York; Loretta Sanchez of California; John F. Tierney of Massachusetts; Ruben Hinojosa of Texas; and Harold Ford Jr. of Tennessee.

On the Republican side, new members are Ron Paul of Texas, who ran for president on the Libertarian Party's ticket in 1988; John Peterson of Pennsylvania; and Bob Schaffer of Colorado.

The Senate will determine its committee rosters next month.

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