Somebody did a terrible thing last week. His name is Paul Bloom; he was a Carter appointee who, on his last day in office, gave $4 million to four major charities: the Salavation Army, the National Council of Churches Charities, the National Conference of Catholic Charities, and the Council of Jewish Federations, to help the poor pay their heating bills this winter. What made it such a terrible thing is that the $4 million came from a $100 million fine that an oil company had to pay to the Department of Energy for ripping off the public by overcharging them for gasoline.
Mr. Bloom, without consulting his superiors, decided the money would just be sitting in DOE's account until somebody figured out whom to give it to, which could take years. Whether he had the authority to do this or not is still in question. But the fact that he did it strikes at the very heart of the bureaucratic system. Mr. Bloom made a decision, and he implemented it, which isn't the way things are done in Washington.
What Mr. Bloom should have done is type up a proposal and submit it to the secretary of energy, who would have then ordered a study to see if it was feasible. The study would then be sent to a consulting firm to make certain that the people at DOE knew what they were doing. When the report from the consultant came back, it would be reviewed and then sent back to the particular agency responsible for disbursing fines from oil companies, and then be sent back to the secretary for further action. The poor wouldn't have gotten any money to pay their heating bills, but at the same time the system would not have been endangered.
The new Reagan people in the Department of Energy immediately took the only action they had at their disposal. They demanded that the four charities return the $4 million immediately to the DOE, because you just don't hand out that kind of money to the poor (even if it comes from the oil companies for cheating the public). They explained to the charity executives that they had no right to the funds.
The charity people said that the money had already been given to the poor people, or promised to them, and that there was some question whether they would return it or not.
This was an outrageous response, which got Reagan's secretary of energy angry, and he threatened to take them to court.
Through his counsel, he also hinted that Mr. Bloom might be prosecuted for overstepping his authority. Mr. Bloom claims that he had the authority to dispense the money and that he figured the funds would do a lot more good helping people pay their oil bills than sitting in the bank.
Bloom's gesture was an unforgivable action by a public servant, and against everything this government stands for. The charities in question have an obligation to send back the money and even try to collect from the poor what has already been spent.
What every official fears is that the Bloom action could set a precedent for other Washington bureaucrats. Instead of dealing with paper, they will start dealing with people, and pretty soon everyone here will have to begin making decisions.
As long as the oil company fine money stayed in the bank, no one had to decide what to do with it. But as soon as it was given to organizations to help the poor, everyone was forced to take some action.
As we all know, $4 million is a drop in the bucket to help poor people pay their fuel bills, so we're not talking about principle.
If Bloom gets away with this dastardly deed, the millions of dollars stashed away in the DOE could actually be given to the people who need it, and we all know the department has far better use for the money than the poor.