Another conservative to head House D.C. panel Oklahoma's Istook, who backs school prayer, to oversee spending

November 24, 1998|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The District of Columbia may be entering a new era of leadership under Mayor-elect Anthony Williams, but at least one thing is likely to stay the same: the presence of a highly conservative lawmaker influencing city government from Capitol Hill.

The recent naming of Rep. Ernest Jim Istook Jr. to head the D.C. appropriations subcommittee means that a leading religious and social conservative will hold the purse strings for the district's spending. The Oklahoma Republican, a staunch proponent of school prayer and critic of abortion, holds many views that run counter to public opinion in Washington.

The Republican-led Congress has made something of a tradition out of appointing very conservative members to lead committees that control district affairs. With the exception of Virginia Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, nearly all have fit that mold.

"The conservatives put their best ideologues in city" oversight, said Alvin Thornton, who heads Howard University's political science department. "It used to be [the Republicans] could pass it off as putting [their] person in this sea of dysfunctionality in the city and then showing the contrast. You'd have the clash between the leaders."

After being named to the post last week, Istook immediately promised an open mind.

"I plan to do a lot of listening and a lot of homework," he said in a statement. "I can do more good by spending my time listening and studying, rather than making comments."

In the House, the D.C. appropriations committee often has been a hotbed of social experimentation for the district -- proposals that would be harder to pass if they applied to the entire nation. The committee has included in its D.C. spending bill prohibitions on homosexual adoptions, the use of marijuana for medical purposes and needle exchange programs.

Among the other conservatives who stirred controversy in district oversight posts in the past: Istook's predecessor, Rep. Charles W. Taylor of North Carolina, and his counterpart in the Senate, North Carolina Sen. Lauch Faircloth, who was defeated in the recent election.

District activists are bracing themselves for more clashes with .. Istook.

"I don't think this could be any worse," said Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, a consortium of 35 local religious groups. "We never vote for these people. Now [Istook] has tremendous power over the way we lead our lives."

But those who have worked closely with Istook say he will be eager to hear all sides.

"He takes a very thorough look at issues and wants to hear all the arguments," said Brian Lopina, a former top aide to Istook. "Knowing him as we did, we used to present him with an issue and think it was going to be a kind of simple thing to explain to him -- but he would always really challenge us to think through our positions and play devil's advocate."

Istook has played a role in district affairs in years past, even though he served only a short stint on the district appropriations subcommittee after arriving in Congress in 1992.

In 1993 and 1994, he sponsored amendments to D.C. spending bills that forbade spending any money for the district's domestic partners law, which allowed unwed couples to receive certain health benefits by registering as partners. The D.C. Council had approved that measure, the Domestic Partners Act, which Istook called "abhorrent."

"I would submit that if the District of Columbia redefines families, we can expect to see moves all across America saying, 'They did it in Washington, why don't we do it here?' " Istook said in a 1993 committee debate. "The reason is, families are the backbone of this country. We need to be strengthening families, not redefining them in a way that tears them down."

Now in his fourth term, Istook, 48, hails from a conservative north central Oklahoma district. A chronic workaholic, he sleeps in his office every night of the work week. He goes home to Oklahoma every weekend to see his wife and five children.

Istook arrived in Congress two years before the Republican takeover of Congress and emerged as a fighter -- hatching what he and 13 other Republicans called a "freshman class revolt" to adopt a plan to overhaul Congress. Istook is a force behind the group known as "CATs" -- the Conservative Action Team -- an aggressive House Republican coalition.

More recently, Istook, a Mormon, has lead the drive for a constitutional amendment that would clear the way for states and municipalities to finance private religious schools, permit prayer in public schools and allow religious symbols on government property. The bill created a rift within the religious right; some found it too extreme to support. Istook also supports requiring parental notification at any federally funded family planning clinic.

Like many lawmakers, Istook has slowed large spending bills with his own political agenda. Legislation he proposed to limit abortion bogged down three 1996 appropriations bills.

Pub Date: 11/24/98

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