As House hearings go, yesterday's oversight session into yet another Reagan administration plan to reorganize the Department of Education was about as partisan and acrimonious as they come.
On the hot seat were Charles Heatherly, who edited the Heritage Foundation's "Mandate for Leadership," and who is now the deputy under secretary for management, and Lawrence Davenport, assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education. Their mission was to convince the House subcommittees on civil service and education that they were not out to gut five programs by abolishing 115 jobs but instead were acting out of the purest of modern motives: maximizing efficiency.
It was a task that proved quite beyond them. The programs affected are those that provide compensatory education for the disadvantaged, technical assistance for school desegregation, Indian education, migrant education, and the Women's Educational Equity Act program. The reorganization calls for downgrading certain programs and consolidating others.
It did not help their cause that Heatherly edited the Heritage Foundation report that described WEEA as a haven for "extreme feminist ideology" that should receive "immediate scrutiny" and have its budget "drastically cut."
Congress has repeatedly saved WEEA from administration attempts to kill it. There was grave suspicion among Democrats at the hearing that the reorganization was a sneaky way of subverting Congress' will.
Rep. George Miller, (D-Calif.), was particularly curious about how Davenport had concluded WEEA needs only five instead of eight people to process the grant applications it gets.
"The number of applications has declined since 1981," said Davenport.
"Do you have the numbers?" said Miller.
"No," said Davenport. "We have no idea how many applicants will apply each year."
"Then how do you know what the workload is going to be?"
"We have the history . . . "
The plan calls for replacing education specialists with public information officers. Rep. William D. Ford (D-Mich.) wanted to know what new skills would be required in the new jobs. Heatherly said he didn't know.
"You must be kidding, if you don't have some idea," said Ford. "You want to change these job description skills . . . but you as an assistant secretary don't know what these are? How did you come to this decision?"
Several Republican members of the panel took exception to what they called an "inquisition," but Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.) said he didn't think the hearing was "entirely unusual." He recalled similar hearings when the administration was talking about improving efficiency in the community action programs. "What happened was the utter demise of" those programs, he said.
President Reagan campaigned for the abolition of the education department, and has allowed portions of it to be turned into mini-employment centers for New Right activists. The issue, said Williams, was not a reorganization. "We're discussing a master plan by conservative elements for changing the way the American people do business with their government.
"For 25 years I have watched the ascendency of the right-wing and every four years they provided comic relief. That has changed. They are now in power. The Heritage Foundation represents an extreme right-wing element in this country," he said, that is preoccupied with "creeping socialism . . . I submit the right-wing has an uncontrollable fear of American education as we know it and that this is but one element of a large plan to change American education."
Before the hearing the education subcommittee passed a resolution reasserting the need for a federal role in education, and during the hearing, Rep. Ford told Heatherly he is going to insist that Congress get 90-days' notice before any department reorganizations. When Heatherly balked at that, Ford read him the law. "We want to find out what you're up to," he said pointedly.
And then he delivered another painful lesson. He told the witnesses they were now bureaucrats, charged with executing the law, not reinterpreting it. "This is the way Congress gets ahold of bureaucrats when we think they are moving outside of the law," he said.
The battleground was a reorganization, and a relatively small one at that. But the message delivered yesterday about the Department of Education was very clear: the administration is going to have a battle on its hands from now on, not a field day.