Congressman starving to make a point Lawmaker's panel on hunger axed

April 22, 1993|By Nelson Schwartz | Nelson Schwartz,Contributing Writer

WASHINGTON -- Ohio Congressman Tony P. Hall is starving.

His face is gaunt, his starched white collar hangs loosely about his neck, and he can't even walk up a flight of stairs without losing his breath. But the hunger is self-imposed.

For 17 days, the veteran Democratic legislator hasn't touched any food to protest the decision by fellow House members to do away with his Select Committee on Hunger earlier this year as an economy move.

Tomorrow, some Hollywood luminaries, including actress Susan Sarandon, actor Jeff Bridges and former "Rhoda" star Valerie Harper, are scheduled to join Mr. Hall in his fast for the day.

Calls have been pouring into Mr. Hall's office and thousands of people across the country have already fasted in support, say aides of the nine-term congressman. Empty paper plates have been sent to leaders of the House by advocacy groups.

"The issue of hunger belongs to people in Baltimore and Dayton and Boise," Mr. Hall said yesterday in an interview in his office, not long before taking the afternoon nap that helps relieve some of the exhaustion he feels. "There is nothing more basic than the right to food. Twenty-seven million Americans are hungry right now, and 35,000 people around the world will die today."

The impetus to kill Mr. Hall's panel and three other select committees came from legislators intent on trimming congressional spending. Led by Republican freshmen, the critics say the same functions could be performed for less by already existing committees, such as those on agriculture and foreign affairs.

Select committees have less power than regular committees. While they may hold hearings and make recommendations, they may not send legislation to the House floor. And though the Select Committee on Hunger has won high marks in the past and spent just $661,000 last year -- less than any other House committee -- opponents said it, too, had to go.

"The same work can be done by other committees," said freshman Republican Rep. Peter Torkildsen of Massachusetts. "Hunger is an important issue, but we're going to have to make do with less money. We can't afford another sounding board, even if it only costs $600,000."

The House abolished the four committees on March 30 after Speaker Thomas S. Foley and other leaders realized they didn't have the votes to keep them alive. For the 15-member staff of Select Hunger, the doors are set to close May 1.

Frustrated by the decision of his colleagues, Mr. Hall began his fast on April 5. By now, the 5-foot-10-inch Dayton native has lost 20 pounds, although his weight has stabilized at about 160. He cannot walk the two blocks from his office to the Capitol for floor votes and must get a ride.

"The first seven days were agony," he said. "You want to eat so bad. But once you get over the hump, you feel like you could go without food forever."

"This is not a publicity stunt," he said. "You get a feeling of what it must be like for some of the kids that go to school hungry. Your mind and body work very slowly."

Three weeks into the fast, Mr. Hall said that his cause is about much more than just getting his committee back, a prospect he knows is not likely.

He is hoping to see a burst of community action in the United States, as well as a new international initiative to reduce starvation. In addition, Mr. Hall wants a hunger summit with President Clinton and members of Congress. And while Mr. Hall would like a new, permanent hunger panel, "the committee is the last thing I want, not the first thing."

No matter what happens, Mr. Hall knows he cannot continue much longer. Even if his goals are not achieved, he plans to break the fast and start eating again by next week.

"It's been worth it, absolutely," he said. "Thousands of people are participating and praying. It's moved the agenda on hunger quite a few steps."

"Hunger deserves to be in the top five or six issues in Congress," he said. "It's not even in the top 40."

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