THEY DIDN'T HAVE the notoriety of Colin L. Powell or John D. Ashcroft, but when Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige and Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman tendered their resignations yesterday, they left significant chunks of unfinished business. Fixing the nation's energy policy, repairing the important but flawed No Child Left Behind Act and halting the extension of vast new subsidies to the nation's farmers will not be easy tasks for their successors.
Of the three, Mr. Paige has the biggest claim to success, since the policy he was appointed to promote did actually become law and could, eventually, improve the education of American children. But the No Child Left Behind Act is far from complete. Key questions, such as how "progress" is defined for disabled and non-English-speaking children, or what it means to be a "highly qualified" teacher, are still open. Dozens of details need to be resolved -- and Congress is still a long way from resolving them. While he clearly believed that the law offered a real chance for raising achievement, especially minority achievement, Mr. Paige was not always articulate enough to defend the fundamental principles while simultaneously pushing hard for these details to be changed. That is the unenviable task for his probable successor, Bush adviser Margaret Spellings.
Mr. Abraham leaves behind a much less substantive legacy, though that is mostly not his fault. Quietly, he did excellent work on tracking and securing loose nuclear material around the world. But the most public manifestation of the administration's energy policy, last year's subsidy-stuffed energy bill, was a disaster. This was largely the fault of Congress, which converted a bloated project into an unpassable, multibillion-dollar fiasco. We hope the next energy secretary will be given more latitude to think creatively about how to shift the U.S. economy away from fossil fuels over the long term, rather than concentrating on how to subsidize the oil and gas industries today.
In a different administration, Mrs. Veneman might have gotten some recognition for the sensible report her department published in September 2001 that criticized the nation's distorting farm subsidies. But politics won out, and her objections to the farm bill that Congress subsequently passed were largely ignored. Instead of being cut, the subsidy program was expanded. The task of weaning the nation's farmers from their addiction to government money awaits the new secretary, if the administration ever intends to follow up its rhetoric about government "waste."