Published Online: March 3, 2004
Published in Print: March 3, 2004, as Federal File

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By Invitation Only

The Department of Education wants to know when every member of Congress plans to hold a town hall meeting.

The response from Democrats: You're not invited.

Last month, Robbi Dicken of the department's congressional-affairs office sent an e-mail to every senator and House member asking for the dates, times, and locations of upcoming open meetings with constituents. The e-mail, which was first reported in The Hill, a newspaper that covers Congress, specified that the sessions could be on any topic, not just education issues.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told Democratic members that they shouldn't respond to the request, saying that the department might send members of "Republican friendly groups" to the events.

"The Department of Education under President Bush has an extensive PR machine," Daniel Weiss, the chief of staff for Rep. George Miller of California, the senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said in an interview.

The request continued to rile Mr. Weiss after the Education Department issued a response to a list of questions from Mr. Miller and other Democrats about how the department is implementing the No Child Left Behind Act. Mr. Weiss said the letter failed to address their concerns adequately.

"They gave us a nonspecific response, yet they want to show up at town hall meetings so they can be helpful," he said.

The department made the request because education issues arise at all such forums and it wanted to get its message out about the No Child Left Behind Act, said Susan Aspey, a department spokeswoman.

"There is a lot of misinformation about [the law] and we wanted to provide materials to help set the record straight," Ms. Aspey wrote in an e-mail.

Some Democrats suspect that the information request was part of a larger effort to build support for the Bush administration, including efforts by private lobbyists for the new Medicare prescription-drug law to compile such a list of town hall meetings.

Democrats fear that those lobbyists wanted to pack the meetings with Medicare supporters, said Jennifer Crider, a spokeswoman for Ms. Pelosi.

"We found it curious that the Department of Education, under the guise of providing education materials, wanted a list of meetings that were not on the topic of education," Ms. Crider said.

—David J. Hoff

Vol. 23, Issue 25, Page 18

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