There are those who claim the greatest line of advertising ever written was “Drink Coca-Cola.” Maybe. For me, it’s the much more recent “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”
In this past election, the Republicans had the phrases and the ideas that stuck. The constant repetition of “small government” left the belief that it could be done and that it was achievable, no matter that government has grown under Republicans as much as it has under Democrats.
After the tumult, Dick Armey–he of the Tea Party persuasion–introduced us to a new political animal: the small-government conservative. These are the people, according to Armey, who will dictate the conservative agenda in the House and put the spokes in the Obama wheel.
This is my profile of this new class in American politics and on Main Street: They believe the government is too big and should be radically cut. They are sworn never to raise taxes. Never. So it is a good thing they believe in cutting government.
But there’s the rub. What are they going to cut and how?
With a Democratic president and Senate, the chainsaw-wielders have only one course of action: defunding the things they don’t like, which are mostly the things they don’t understand. The Tea Party types and those they have dragged to the right of the Republican Party say, for example, the Department of Energy must go because it makes no energy; besides, it was created by Jimmy Carter. Shudder!
In truth, the Energy Department was created the way presidents create departments; to show they are doing something when they don’t know what to do. That was the genesis of the Department of Homeland Security—a true monstrosity, created by George W. Bush to show that we were serious about terrorism—and of Carter’s Department of Education.
The Energy Department’s responsibilities include the long-range, high-risk research and development of energy technology, power marketing at the federal level, the promotion of energy conservation, oversight of the nuclear weapons program, regulatory programs, and the collection and analysis of energy data.
Day to day the department tries to clean up coal, perfect batteries, improve solar cells, tend the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in salt domes along the Gulf Coast, and operate the military Waste Isolation Pilot Project site in New Mexico. It ought to be doing as much for civilian wastes at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid nixed that, along with about $10 billion of taxpayer money and some great engineering.
The Energy Department operates an extraordinary necklace of National Laboratories and Technology Centers, 20 of them.The jewels in this string are the weapons labs of Los Alamos, Sandia and Lawrence Livermore.
These labs comprise a unique national asset, unmatched anywhere. They employ thousands–that is right, thousands–of PhDs under a unique structure: The Energy Department sets the labs’ agendas and doles out the dollars, but they are operated by a mix of contractors from the university system of California to industrial firms.
To know the national laboratories is to love them. I know them.
The Energy Department has been burdened with indifferent and terrible secretaries, excepting these three: James Schlesinger, who created the department; Don Hodel, who served during the early years of the Reagan Administration; and Bill Richardson, who served under Bill Clinton.
One really wonders whether those who would hack away at the Energy
Department know what damage they would do. If the department were broken up, its functions would have to be housed elsewhere. Interior? Defense? NASA? EPA? No money would be saved.
The department is the largest science—especially physics–incubator on earth. It might more appropriately be called the Department of Science. Sure it could be better run; much duplication could be eliminated. But why close down our primary science institution?
Along with “small government,” there is a also a cry for more “math and science.” Woodsmen spare that department; prune but do not chop it down.