Members of Congress yesterday questioned whether a proposed Education Department reorganization is a "thinly veiled" attempt to dismantle liberal programs. Bureaucrats defended the plan in the name of "efficiency."

The confrontation, which occurred before a joint hearing of the House Education and Labor Committee and the Post Office and Civil Service Committee, was prompted by the department's proposal to trim its work force by another 111 full-time positions, downgrade the office that carries out the Women's Educational Equity Act and cut personnel in programs serving migrants, Indians and educationally disadvantaged children, among others.

Earlier, an Education subcommittee voted, 16 to 2, to approve a resolution reaffirming the importance of the federal government's role in setting national educational priorities and promoting educational equity. Since his 1980 campaign, President Reagan has blamed federal intervention for a decline in the quality of American education.

Rep. William D. Ford (D-Mich.), who chairs the Post Office Committee, crystallized the Democrats' suspicions when he observed that "one person's reorganization for managerial efficiency is another person's reorganization to eliminate the program."

Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.) escalated the morning's already high-pitched rhetoric when he accused "consevative elements" of setting out a "master plan for what appears to be simple changes for efficiency's sake ," when, in fact, "the right wing has an almost uncontrollable fear of education as it's now being administered in this country, and this is but one element of a large plan to change American education."

Charles L. Heatherly, undersecretary of Education for management, and Lawrence Davenport, assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, who is presiding over the reorganization plan, said that they have no intention of subverting the programs affected by the reorganization, and justified the proposals on the basis of efficiency.

Heatherly refused to back away from his defense of the pending reduction in force, which is taking place in a department whose staff has been trimmed 25 percent in the past two years. Both he and Davenport said that the same work would be done processing grant applications, distributing money and offering technical assistance to state and local school districts.

Heatherly, however, reiterated his objections to some of the affected programs. Asked by Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) if he still feels the WEEA program is an example of a "feminist network . . . feeding at the federal trough," a statement made in a 1981 Heritage Foundation article he edited, Heatherly said, "after two years in the department . . . I'm convinced of it."