Published Online: May 13, 1998
Published in Print: May 13, 1998, as Federal File

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Out to lunch

It's been three years since Republicans lost the battle to overhaul the federal school lunch program, but the event remains a painful memory for GOP lawmakers. So painful, in fact, that they sometimes use the term "school lunch" to describe being on the losing end of a public relations battle.

Rep. Howard P. McKeon

Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., was quoted in a recent syndicated column saying the GOP could be "school-lunched" if it voted to change student-loan interest rates.

Mr. McKeon said in an interview with Education Week last week that he did not remember uttering the new verb in his interviews with Robert D. Novak, the column's author.

But other Republicans acknowledge they occasionally use the term to refer to losing the war of sound bites and newspaper headlines.

In 1995, shortly after they won a majority in the House, Republicans proposed making the federal school lunch program a state block grant. Democrats complained loudly because the plan would have ended impoverished students' guarantee of a federally subsidized meal. ("A Political Food Fight," March 29, 1995.)

Press accounts emphasized the Democratic spin that the program would be cut, downplaying the Republicans' plan for steady spending hikes for the proposed block grant. The block grant died when the Senate rejected it in the face of an almost-certain veto by President Clinton.

Those memories remained fresh for Republicans this year as they addressed changes to the Higher Education Act. Bankers have contended that the changes set to go into effect July 1 would eat into their profit margins and might encourage them to stop granting federally guaranteed loans for college students.

Rep. McKeon, who chairs the House higher education subcommittee, knew he would face a public relations challenge if Republicans did anything to raise student-loan payments, so he designed a bill to subsidize banks with $1.2 billion to entice them to stay in the program. The bill passed the House, 414-4, May 6. ("House Approves Reauthorization of Higher Education Act," in This Week's News.)

Democratic support for the plan is a good sign that, in three years, Republicans won't be talking about being "student-loaned."

--DAVID J. HOFF federal@epe.org

Vol. 17, Issue 35, Page 22

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