THE THING ABOUT Washington is that it is even worse than Jimmy Carter and Jody Powell think it is. Impossible, you say. But you are wrong. For the truth is that people in this benighted town not only fall into Grievous Error, but also persist in it, sometimes for as much as a quarter of a century or more. Worse (can there be worse?), some of these people have even refused to see the Error of Their Ways when Jimmy Carter and Jody Powell no less told them they were wrong.

We are provoked to reveal this terrible truth by an item in yesterday's Star. In it, Mr. Powell disclosed to Carl Rowan the president's belief that Joseph Califano's misdemeanors included not only opposing the creation of a Department of Education, but also "inducing The Washington Post to editorialize against such a department." Our first thought on reading this was that we hoped Messrs. Powell and Carter were better at understanding the Russians, the Congress and the oil companies than they are at understanding The Washington Post. We will come clean: We are not one-time offenders in this business and there's no point blaming Mr. Califano for our lapse. We are, in fact, hardened criminals, hopeless recidivists and probably - why mince words? - incorrigibles. We have been fighting the creation of a separate Department of Education...since 1953.

There. We said it. We feel better already. Permit us to continue this cleansing confession. We began our life of crime, as is so often the case, thinking we'd only do it just this once and never have to do it again. That was when they were forming HEW and as we said - March 19, 1953 - "there have been strong movements for the creation of special departments devoted to social welfare, health and education.... Experience has shown, however, that they can be properly controlled in a single agency, and the chief purpose of the present shift is to give the combined agency the standing, administrative hierarchy and salaries to which it is entitled."

Well, one thing just led to another. And we found ourselves, every time this turkey of an idea came up, giving it a somewhat harder editorial clop. Senator Ribicoff, who has sponsored the Carter administration's bill, will recollect that we began our marauding against his position on this back in the days when he was urging, as outgoing secretary of HEW, that the department be broken down into its separate H, E and W parts. "The federal agencies dealing with health, education and welfare were brought together into one department largely to relieve the president of an impossible executive task," we lectured in one of our less ingratiating tones. "In our opinion, it is better for the head of this diffused agency to wrestle with a wide variety of problems than to impose upon the president the necessity of dealing with two additional department heads."

That was in July of 1962. By November of that year we were getting a little testy: "We see no occasion...to elevate the Office of Education into a separate Cabinet department. It can function effectively as a part of HEW." So far as we can piece together from their printed biographies, Mr Califano was at that time a sub-sub assistant at the Pentagon, Mr. Carter was in Georgia state legislature and Mr. Powell was at the Air Force Academy.

Thereafter, with the regularity of a cuckoo clock, the proposal would be put forward, and we and a lot of others would elaborate and repeat our opposition to it. There was, you see, life in Washington before 1977, hard as some folks find that to believe - although they shouldn't have much trouble believing that it was just as perverse then as it is now.

In case you hadn't noticed, we remain adamantly opposed to the creation of this new department. We think it is an awful idea and nothing that has been said or that has happened in the last 26 years has given us reason to think otherwise - including and especially the Carter administration's campaign in favor of it.