THE COUNTRY can get along nicely without a federal Department of Education. But the Department of Energy is another matter altogether, and abolishing it would strip the president of an invaluable resource in the next oil crisis. President Reagan has promised to break up both departments. Congress would do well to give him half of what he wants.
In education, the principal federal function is to provide some money to supplement the work carried on at other levels of government. That leaves the Department of Education so notoriously under- occupied that it will always feel a built-in temptation to push into other people's business in order to justify its existence. There was a particularly dismaying example in the last months of the Carter administration, when the department published those memorable regulations for bilingual education. Drafted with the Southwest's concentrations of Hispanic children--and Hispanic votes--in mind, the regulations would have meant only needless cost and confusion in other parts of the country. Their withdrawal was an early and unambiguous benefit of Mr. Reagan's election.
But in energy, the argument is precisely the opposite. There the central responsibilities are inescapably the federal government's. A third of the department's budget is the nuclear weapons program. Most of the rest is nuclear power development and the strategic oil reserve. The administration does not intend to cut back on any of them. There's no money to be saved by breaking up the department. It would only return the government to the old practices of making nuclear policy with no regard to the oil markets, making oil policy with no regard to natural gas supplies, and setting gas prices with no regard to developments in coal.
The political campaign against the Department of Energy originated with independent oil and gas producers who, not altogether rationally, persisted in associating the department with the price controls that Congress had earlier legislated. But the price controls have now expired and the oil field animus against the department seems to be subsiding.
As long as fortune keeps smiling, Mr. Reagan can continue to ignore the energy issues and leave the Energy Department in a state of political receivership. But if fortune turns the other way--if there should be another disruption in the foreign oil supply, or another nuclear accident--the White House and Congress would discover that both their constituents and their allies abroad expect something better of them. There are a good many people in Congress who, remembering the previous crises, understand that point perfectly. Here they would do Mr. Reagan a favor by refusing to carry out his demolition plan.