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Democrats Gape at DoE Info Request

House Democratic aides are wondering if the Bush administration, in dealing with Congress, has adopted the Corleone family motto: Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer.

Democrats were stunned to receive an e-mail Friday from the office of Assistant Secretary for Education Karen Johnson, asking lawmakers for a schedule of their planned town hall meetings ó "ANY town halls" ó in the next few months.

Robbi Dicken, a congressional affairs staffer at the Department of Education (DoE), wrote to Hill aides: "Hi All. ... The Assistant Secretary, Karen Johnson, has asked me to compile a schedule of any town hall meetings that will be taking place in your district/state with your boss over the next few months. This is for ANY town halls ... not just events that are geared towards education."

Dicken added, "If there are any set on the calender [sic] it would be great to see what date you have them scheduled. If you do not have any scheduled just let me know so I donít have to pester you over the phone."

The e-mail concluded: "Have a good weekend! Thanks again, Rd."

Democratic leadership aides suspected a Republican scheme to pepper the audience at this weekís town halls with Republicans ó and perhaps even lobbyists ó sympathetic to the White Houseís initiatives on the No Child Left Behind Act, as well as the recently passed prescription drug benefit legislation, a bill House Democrats vigorously opposed.

House Democrats were worried that Republican provocateurs would swing the audiences towards the GOP view of those bills.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told her caucus members not to comply with Johnsonís request and ordered them not to divulge any party secrets.

"Republican friendly groups are working hard to get lists of Democratic town hall meetings over the recess," Stacy Kerry, a Pelosi aide, e-mailed the caucus. "You may be contacted by lobbyists or even by administration officials who are asking for events your boss is doing or lists of Democratic town hall meetings."

She added, "Obviously, everyone should use their best judgment, however please do not share information on events other than those of your boss and remember you do not have to give this information to anyone."

But Johnson dismissed the suggestion that she was fishing for a database of Democratic events. She stressed that the e-mail was sent to both Republican and Democratic press secretaries and legislative assistants.

"I wish itís a little more salacious, but itís not," she told The Hill. "Itís fairly customary to touch base with Republicans and Democrats."

She said the e-mail was sent to congressional offices because "we wanted to see if they needed any information."

Those benign explanations, however, did not convince some Democratic aides of the Bush administrationís innocent intentions. Those aides charged that the administration was overstepping its bounds by attempting to monitor congressional recess activities.

"Americaís students would be better served if the Department of Education spent a little more time focusing on how to fund No Child Left Behind and less time focusing on what Democratic House members are doing in their districts," said Jennifer Crider, a Pelosi spokeswoman.

But Greg Crist, spokesman for the House Republican Conference, scoffed at the implication that there was some grand GOP scheme to treat recess town hall meetings like an Iowa caucus.

"If anything, they have their paid people to bad-mouth the law," Crist said.

"Democrats are practicing a questionable form of politics in attacking something that is law. Ö No one can deny that this helps low income seniors."

— Hans Nichol
The Hill


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