Lobbyists Mourn Death of Staunch Ally Natcher

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Rep. William H. Natcher, the venerable chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, died last week at the age of 84, leaving education lobbyists to mourn for a consistent champion of their programs and making way for a new style of leadership on the powerful panel.

The Kentucky Democrat was best known for having served in Congress for 41 years without missing a vote on the House floor, a record that probably will never be broken. His string of consecutive votes ended at 18,401 last month, when he was confined to a hospital by the heart ailment that later killed him.

But the education community also knew the courtly chairman as a staunch ally. He had headed the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education since 1979, and education advocates were pleased when he became chairman of the full appropriations panel in 1992.

"He was a solid rock we could count on, build a strategy around,'' said Edward R. Kealy, the director of federal programs at the National School Boards Association.

Education lobbyists noted with particular fondness that Mr. Natcher defended education programs during 12 years of Republican administrations that often sought to cut them.

"He took care of us in the grimmest of times, when people were trying to phase out the federal role in education,'' said Bruce Hunter, the senior associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "Maybe even in a surprise to himself, he made more money available to us than we thought possible.''

Mr. Natcher's devotion to duty and to the House as an institution, as well as his legendary attention to detail, contributed to the remarkable reputation he enjoyed.

"He was universally respected'' and known for a "sense of inherent fairness,'' and thus carried "a degree of authority ... that's really unmatched in the House,'' said Michael D. Edwards, the manager of federal relations for the National Education Association.

Making no concessions to the sound-bite era, Mr. Natcher campaigned by driving around his district, took no campaign contributions or honoraria, and did not employ a press secretary.

A Change in Style?

Mr. Natcher's old-fashioned ways extended to legislative procedure. Most notably, his subcommittee marked up its spending bills in closed session, away from the prying eyes of lobbyists and reporters.

The House Democratic Caucus voted recently to anoint Rep. David R. Obey, D-Wis., to succeed Mr. Natcher as appropriations chairman. The conventional wisdom is that the 55-year-old liberal will bring a more combative, policy-driven approach to the funding process.

The contrast in style between the two men was on full display last year, when Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley appeared before Mr. Natcher's subcommittee. The chairman quietly suggested that the Clinton Administration's budget did not meet statutory caps and asked Mr. Riley where he was "able to find the $2 billion'' to erase a Pell Grant shortfall.

Mr. Obey, by contrast, told Mr. Riley that failing to propose a realistic budget "is a moral outrage and economically stupid.''

Most observers expect that Rep. Neal Smith, D-Iowa--who lost out to Mr. Obey for the full-committee chairmanship despite being next in line in seniority--will take over the leadership of the subcommittee. Mr. Smith was given temporary custody of the panel at the same time Mr. Obey won the larger prize.

"There's a strong feeling that the subcommittee is Mr. Smith's if he wants it, but there's nothing official,'' an appropriations aide said.

Mr. Obey currently serves as the chairman of the foreign-operations subcommittee, while Mr. Smith heads the panel overseeing the Commerce, State, and Justice departments.

Mr. Smith's low-key, collegial style more closely resembles that of Mr. Natcher. He has not been particularly active on education issues on the subcommittee, but lobbyists say he has generally been supportive of their interests.

Some observers speculate that Mr. Obey might try to make deliberations more open, or that Mr. Natcher's successors may be more willing to earmark funds for programs that have not yet been enacted or renewed, something the Kentuckian refused to do.

Mr. Hunter suggested that Mr. Obey would work closely with the budget committees, which would give even more importance to the non-binding budget resolutions that appropriators generally follow in making specific allocations.

Staff Writer Lynn Schnaiberg also contributed to this report.

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