School Climate & Safety

Policymakers Scramble to Deal With Closings

By Erik W. Robelen — October 31, 2001 4 min read
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It was a rough week for education policymaking in Washington.

With congressional office buildings closed all or most of last week after anthrax spores were detected on Capitol Hill Oct. 15, displaced lawmakers and staff on the education committees did their best to keep working. But several education-related events were postponed amid the tumult.

“I am calling from the second floor of the gigantic GAO facility at G and 4th Street,” said David Schnittger, a spokesman for Rep. John A. Boehner, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. The General Accouting Office, Congress’ investigative arm, provided space in its nearby headquarters.

“It’s actually very nice,” Mr. Schnittger said from his cellular phone early last week. “I mean ... when we learned last night that we would be operating out of a building made available by GAO at the last minute, we were envisioning a warehouse like at the end of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark.’ ”

Only a skeleton crew from the committee was working at the GAO building, and computers and phones had to be shared. Many aides worked from home or other locations. The Department of Education, which is a few blocks from Capitol Hill, offered up some space for education committee aides from the House and the Senate.

There were a few wrinkles, however.

“We crashed the GAO computer system not long after staff [first] arrived,” Mr. Schnittger said. It was fixed by midafternoon that day. “It’s not disrupting things as much as it is forcing us to be a little more resourceful than usual. ... Work is continuing on the education bill,” he said.

By last Thursday, the Rayburn House office building, site of the House education committee offices, reopened.

Committee Chiefs Meet

Mr. Boehner and Rep. George Miller of California, the House committee’s ranking Democrat, met twice last week with their Senate counterparts—Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the chairman and ranking minority member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee—for talks on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Each chamber has approved differing bills to reauthorize the law.

But Congress has had trouble convening the 39 members of the House-Senate conference committee that’s supposed to hash out differences. The conferees last met Sept. 25. Since anthrax spores were discovered on Capitol Hill, lawmakers have twice canceled meetings. At press time, a meeting was scheduled for Oct. 30.

Other Delays

Other education events also were postponed last week, including a House hearing on international-student visas. And the National Center for Policy Analysis, a Dallas-based public policy group, called off a Capitol Hill press conference to release a book on school choice.

The group had arranged to hold the event Oct. 24 at the House Triangle, just outside the Capitol, but congressional leaders announced that the space was reserved for terrorism-related announcements. The backup plan was to use a room in the Rayburn building, which was still closed. Distributing the books to lawmakers was also impossible, as the internal mail system had been shut down.

Unfortunately for the group’s president, John C. Goodman, the cancellation occurred after he boarded a plane from Dallas. He returned home the same day.

“He called it the $3,000 lunch,” said Jack Strayer, the group’s vice president of external affairs.

Jim Manley, a spokesman for Sen. Kennedy, said Oct. 23 that he and a few Senate education committee aides were working out of the chairman’s “hideaway,” a private office space in the Capitol like that enjoyed by other long-time senators. Mr. Manley said that most committee aides were working from home or elsewhere.

“We’re not getting mail right now, so we’ve got that going for us,” he said.

The House did manage to pass a bill that would allow extra time for repayment of college loans by reservists called up for active military duty.

Meanwhile, the Education Department has been affected by the heightened security concerns.

For years, anyone entering the headquarters has had to pass through metal detectors; employees have had to show identification, and visitors have needed an appointment to enter. And even before Sept. 11, security officials searched the trunks of cars entering the garage under the building.

But now the department has joined other federal agencies in taking additional steps.

The Federal Protective Services, a branch of the federal government that provides security for federal offices, released new guidelines this month for handling mail, including tips for identifying and handling suspicious packages. It also advises agencies to keep mail in one area until it can be examined, and to allow only authorized employees to enter.

Following those guidelines, the department has added new precautions. And the agency stopped releasing Education Secretary Rod Paige’s weekly schedule in advance after the September attacks.

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