AS TIME GROWS short and the end of the session approaches, Congress faces painful choices among bills to be passed and bills to be abandoned. To ease the pain, we offer a suggestion. There is one prominent bill that Congress can dump overboard with a clear conscience, and that is the defective and divisive attempt to establish a new Department of Education.
The bill is the inspiration of the National Education Association, an organization that has much the same relation to the public schools that the plumbers union has to the plumbing business. A couple of years ago, before the last presidential election, the NEA pressed Mr. Carter for a position. He promised to support a new department. The NEA cheered, and endorsed him. That may be a reason for Mr. Carter to push this bill - but it's not much of a reason for anybody else to go along.
The case for the bill is usually couched in large and cloudy terms of prestige and recognition. Education is important and therefore it follows, according to the argument, that education deserves a seat in the Cabinet, a seal, and a large building of its own on the Mall. Perhaps the reader will suspect that there must be a bit more to it than that vague and vacuous rationale. We share the suspicion.
The NEA, in fact, has good reason to suppose that it would have far more influence in a small department devoted to one subject than it can ever hope to enjoy in the labyrinths of the present Department of Health, Education and Welfare. In that trinity of subjects, education ranks third in terms both of federal money and federal responsibility. But there is a real danger that the new department would become the special possession of the NEA. The bill is firmly opposed, incidentally, by the NEA's rival union, the American Federation of Teachers, and by the National Catholic Education Association.
The decision to establish a new federal department usually constitutes a statement of new federal purpose.The most recent department, Energy, was a response to the oil crisis of 1973-74 and to the realization that the country was going to need stronger and better-calculated policy. The Transportation Department was set up in 1966 to bring order among the dozens of bureaus and boards that, with steadily rising federal outlays, were working not only at cross purposes with each other but frequently in competition with each other.
You could make a case for a Department of Education if you saw a great and urgent necessity for broad new federal authority over the schools. But the present pattern of decentralized control is working very well. You could make a case for a department if you believed that state and local school systems were in deep financial need from which only huge new federal appropriations could rescue them. But at the moment the state and local governments are, collectively, running a surplus of $10 billion a year while the federal budget is $38 billion in the red.
Over the summer the bill has become increasingly entangled in the bureaucratic warfare over which programs to bring into a new department and which to leave out. The House leadership has now postponed the final vote for at least another week, and suggests that it may never come up. That would be fine. After long debate, the legislation's sponsors are still unable to demonstrate any plausible public benefit in it. On the contrary, by inviting greater federal intervention and distorting the present satisfactory balance of responsibilities, it is a good deal more likely to bring real harm.