Unplug the DOE!

Why Clinton should abolish the Department of Energy.

George Washington had only four Cabinet departments. Since his time, 13 new departments have been created and only two eliminated (the Navy Department was absorbed into the Department of Defense in 1949, and the Post Office was spun off as a federal corporation in 1971). Ronald Reagan promised to close down two (Energy and Education). Instead, he added one (Veterans Affairs). George Bush proposed adding another (Environment), but didn’t get to do so. The Republican “revolutionaries” who took over Congress in 1994 pledged to abolish three departments (Energy, Education, Commerce), but quickly retreated.

If President Clinton is looking for an easy symbolic way to cement his reputation as a “small government” Democrat–and, if we know Clinton, he surely is–the answer is clear: Be one-up on the Republicans, and actually abolish a Cabinet department.

But which one? The corporate-welfare-dispensing Department of Commerce is an obvious candidate, since it mostly serves a big-business constituency with an array of subsidies and favors. By punting Commerce, Clinton could portray himself as a more principled defender of the free market than Republicans, who tolerate the corporations that are chronically dependent on the federal government.

What’s the downside? Taking on corporate welfare might backfire, casting Clinton in the discredited role of Democratic scourge of business. Also, using Commerce to promote U.S. business abroad has shielded Clinton against critics on the left who say he’s helplessly infatuated with free trade.

A nother option is Education, created by Jimmy Carter–mostly as a favor to the National Education Association, which gave him its first presidential endorsement. Federal spending on elementary and secondary education remains small in aggregate, amounting to just 7 percent of total public spending on schools. Most of the department’s popular programs, like college student aid and Title I, which provides money for educating poor children, existed before the department was born. Another sacrosanct federal education effort, Head Start, is not even under the Ed Department’s jurisdiction. Education does finance science and math instruction, but so do other agencies.

Junking Education probably isn’t politically feasible, though. For one thing, it would anger the teachers’ unions, a powerful constituency in the Democratic Party: A full 525 of the 4,293 delegates at the party’s Chicago convention belonged to either the NEA or the American Federation of Teachers. And, having already vilified the Republicans as enemies of learning for their proposed cuts in federal education outlays, Clinton and the Democrats would appear hypocritical if they abolished the Department of Education. Can’t have that.

T hat leaves Energy, which is perfectly suited to abolition on practical as well as political grounds. Aside from the environmentalists, who are fixated on renewable fuels, few Democrats care much about the Department of Energy anymore. The chief motive for creating the department in 1977 was to regulate oil prices, which only exacerbated the “energy crisis.” Reagan’s decontrol of energy has resulted in the steady decline of gasoline prices (in absolute terms), and has removed the issue from the table. Even during last spring’s spike in prices, no Democrat advocated price controls or punitive taxes on Big Oil.

For the most part, the DOE is an anachronism whose main function under Clinton has been to generate embarrassing news stories about Secretary Hazel O’Leary’s expensive globe-trotting. Two-thirds of the DOE’s budget pays for programs unrelated to energy: nuclear-weapons production, maintenance, and cleanup. Those tasks can’t be eliminated; but they can, logically, be transferred to the Pentagon. Many of the DOE’s functions, like owning oil (the Strategic Petroleum Reserve) and oil fields (the Naval Petroleum Reserve), can be privatized. (Clinton has already proposed selling off the petroleum reserve.) Subsidies for solar power and energy conservation likewise deserve the ax (energy taxes would do the job far more efficiently, if the job needs doing); or, they could migrate to Interior. Funding for science research at 28 national laboratories may be more defensible, but even a DOE task force recommended an end to government ownership of the labs. Much of their research is in commercial applications, which belongs in the private sector.

S keptics will carp that it is not critical whether the department survives, but whether its programs do. It’s true that if the programs aren’t winnowed down, not much changes apart from the stationery. But, even if Clinton were to parcel the existing programs out to other departments without appreciably reducing their cost, it would still make political sense to dump DOE. Nobody will bother to compare the before-and-after budgetary authority, but few will fail to notice that a department has vanished.

After shuttering the DOE, Clinton could depict himself as a crusader against waste and bureaucracy who succeeded where even Reagan failed. Like his agreement last year to a seven-year plan to balance the budget, this step would change the terms of the debate with Republicans. Before the balanced-budget accord, the GOP framed all opposition to its budget cuts as fiscally irresponsible conduct by people committed to everlasting deficits. Afterward, the Republicans were obliged to defend the proposed cuts on their individual merits, an argument which the Democrats generally carried.

Democrats have done themselves a lot of harm by refusing to discriminate between those programs that are vital and those that are not. For Clinton to abolish the DOE would be a bracing lesson in how to do just that. The question is whether Clinton has the nerve. Republicans have long demanded smaller government. They should pray Clinton doesn’t give it to them.