Even his critics will acknowledge that the secretary of the Interior, James Watt, has an unusual talent for simplifying issues. He never presents you with anything requiring subtlety or complicated judgments. It's always just another simple outrage. The current performance raises only one real question, and that is why the White House continues to leave itself exposed to the reproaches that Mr. Watt repeatedly brings down on the whole administration.

His commission on coal pricing is, in fact, unusually distinguished. It consists of a former member of the Federal Reserve Board, a former commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, a well- known investment adviser and two respected academics. Those are the people whom the secretary cheerily described as a masterstroke of political balance: "I have a black. I have a woman, two Jews, and a cripple." Mr. Watt is a menace to his allies and a delight to his adversaries not because he talks like that, but because he thinks like that and after nearly three years in office still doesn't see why he shouldn't. His insensitivity is terminal, and you would think that so far as his time in office is concerned this remark would be terminal too.

It would be a pity if, in the uproar over Mr. Watt's description of his commission, people lost sight of the struggle over coal leasing that lies behind it. Like everything else connected with Mr. Watt, this one is also pretty simple. He has been auctioning off coal leases in large quantities and at low prices. Last summer the House Interior Committee told him to hold off. Mr. Watt, responding in his usual fashion, has now managed to elevate the quarrel from a rather narrow matter of resource management into a challenge to Congress' institutional authority. That has brought a low, menacing growl from the Senate, previously more or less on his side, and on Tuesday it passed by a large majority a moratorium on leasing. If all goes well, it will very shortly be law.

Mr. Watt keeps saying that, in his accelerated leasing of coal rights, he is only trying to protect consumers, reduce unemployment and so forth. In theory it is possible to make a case that, under certain circumstances, the Interior Department could serve the public interest by pushing out leases fast and driving coal prices down a little. Under what circumstances? A very tight market, with roaring demand and forecasts of inadequate production. That is, of course, the opposite of the present situation, with the economy just coming out of a recession and plenty of production capacity. Mr. Watt is striking ideological poses that don't have much relation to the current realities.

He will be remembered here in Washington for his heedless zeal, but zeal quickly loses its charm.