Published Online: October 15, 1997

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Money laundering

A House-Senate conference committee meeting last week on the fiscal 1998 education appropriations bill provoked a lively debate on federal funding for education programs. It also revealed some members' views on a more personal subject: laundry.

The war of words centered on ideological differences between Republicans and Democrats, with most Republicans backing a block grant proposal by Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., that would give most federal aid directly to local districts and set few restrictions on how districts spend federal dollars. Democrats, however, defended the current system of targeted federal grant funding, saying that the federal role is to funnel money to special populations through programs such as Title I and initiatives authorized by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act .

Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., likened the current federal approach to buying one-load-size packets of laundry detergent for large masses of laundry.

"We're taking this in little chunks and getting eaten up in packaging and overhead costs," he said, adding that buying a large, economy-size box would make more sense.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, responded with his own interpretation, saying that an article such as a cashmere sweater needed special treatment--just like the special-needs students served by some federal programs.

"The big box of soap is state education," he said. "We're going for the special clothes that can't be washed in the washing machine with everything else."

Most of the Republicans sitting across the table agreed that they also would hand-wash the cashmere sweater. Rep. Anne M. Northup, R-Ky., chimed in that she would take it to the dry cleaner.

The debate over the federal role in school programs is likely to continue long after the appropriations process is done. While Mr. Gorton did not back down from his proposal, several members cautioned him that President Clinton has threatened a veto of any education spending bill that includes Mr. Gorton's block grant provision.

Congressional staff members are continuing informal negotiations on the spending bill, which covers the budget year that began Oct. 1, while Congress is on recess this week. A Senate Appropriations Committee spokesman predicted the negotiations could continue until Oct. 23, when the resolution to extend funding at present levels expires.

--JOETTA L. SACK jsack@epe.org

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