President Reagan's campaign promises to shrink the government by dismantling the departments of education and energy have bumped into the gritty reality of both interest group and congressional opposition and now seem dead for the year, administration officials say.
Sources said a proposal to transfer most of Energy's functions to the Commerce Department still may be introduced this year, but all sides agree that chances of passage are dim.
Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell said in an interview that he doesn't intend to send up legislation that would turn his department into a foundation until "after we've had a chance to gain more support than we now have."
Bell refused to concede that this means his proposal is dead for this year, but other officials said the foundation bill will not be introduced. Bell for political reasons has to insist that it will be introduced, one sympathetic official said; "he can't say anything else."
The Education proposal is being junked for now, sources said, partly because of its lack of support among key Senate Republicans, including Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (Tenn.), Robert T. Stafford (Vt.), chairman of the education subcommittee, and William V. Roth Jr. (Del.), chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, which would handle the bill.
The foundation proposal would maintain most of the Education Department's major programs, although cutting its payroll to $8.8 billion and 4,800 employes. Another $1 billion in programs would be transferred to other agencies. The Education Department will spend about $14.3 billion this year, and has 5,900 employes.
Bell's foundation idea has generated little enthusiasm in Congress, and most education groups have lobbied hard against it. Many members of Congress who voted to set up the newest Cabinet agency in 1979 want to keep it, department officials acknowledge. Many conservatives who want to reduce the federal role in education oppose the foundation proposal, saying it does little but change the name of the department.
Bell said he is selling his foundation idea in one-on-one meetings with members of Congress every chance he gets. "I'm slowly gaining support," he said. "It's just going to take more work than I anticipated . . . . We don't want it to be introduced and then shot down. The worst thing would be to introduce it prematurely and then get a big crunching defeat right away."
The plan to dismantle the Energy Department, which has 17,000 employes and spends about $15 billion, has run into similar difficulties. Secretary James B. Edwards, who is considering an offer to become president of the Medical University of South Carolina, has continued to voice support for reorganization. But another official said, "I don't see any way in the world we can get a bill . . . . It's a disaster."
A major strategic mistake was made, the official said, in involving in the drafting process congressional committee chairmen, whose power is measured in part by their hold over the department. "It's like going to the Cookie Monster to talk about cookie jar security."
Mary Nimmo, public affairs director at Commerce, said a bill was ready to go to Congress in February, but Baker, the Senate chairmen and the White House legislative staff decided to hold off because they wanted to resolve jurisdictional disputes.
Four chairmen whose Senate committees have a slice of the Energy Department met recently to discuss the possibilities, but so far have failed to come up with a common approach. They are Roth, John G. Tower (Tex.) of Armed Services, Bob Packwood (Ore.) of Commerce, and James A. McClure (Idaho) of Energy and Natural Resources.
Even if the Senate agrees, congressional sources said Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Tex.), chairman of the House Government Operations Committee, is facing a tough primary and isn't likely to want to spend much time on any reorganization plan in the next few months.
For much of last year, members of Congress criticized the president for failing to fill top jobs at Energy. The officials are finally on board, but now there are complaints that they aren't tending the department's business. Some in Congress have wondered if they, like their boss Edwards, are job hunting instead.