Departmental dispute

Photo By Dennis Myers A group of Sharron Angle volunteers gathered at Republican headquarters in southeast Reno.

Democrat Harry Reid has been accusing his Republican opponent, Sharron Angle, of wanting to do away with a couple of federal cabinet departments.

Why are they accusations? The Reid TV spots seem to suggest that the notion of shutting down federal offices is beyond the pale of reasonable thought. Are the two cabinet departments so sacrosanct?

From a KNPR interview, Angle’s statement on the Education Department went like this:

“I believe that anything that isn’t a federally governed, enumerated power in the Constitution, which means the federal government should be paying out on this, is up for grabs here,” she said. “And we have some departments like the Department of Education that passes down policy, one-size-fits-all, that fits no one, like No Child Left Behind. We need to keep those education dollars right here in the state and put them where they will do the most good, which is right in that classroom, with that classroom teacher. … And it angers me every time I hear [officials] say we’re going to cut teachers. What about the agencies that never see a child, never have been in a classroom, that are passing down policy that actually overburdens our classrooms. What about those? Why don’t we cut there?”

A KNPR host then asked, “Would you eliminate the Department of Education or simply cut it back?”

Angle replied, “I would like to go through to the elimination. I think we start by defunding it, and the reason that we should eliminate it is because it’s not the federal government’s job to provide education for our children. It’s a 10th Amendment right. It should be done here in the state, and it should be done as close to the local as possible.”

In a March interview with small counties reporter Nancy Dallas, Angle also used the “enumerated powers” argument to call for “cuts [that] should include the Department of Education, Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, IRS code, audit the Fed [Federal Reserve Board] leading to cuts, National Endowment of the Arts, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, Planned Parenthood funding, funding of czars and more.”

Political scientist Fred Lokken said there is merit to reassessing the performance of some agencies from time to time in order to decide whether to keep them. But he said that the Founders never intended the Constitution to freeze archaic structures as they were in the 18th century, when the document was written.

“Jefferson felt that we should be reinventing it [the Constitution] every 20 years,” Lokken said.

“I don’t think there was a single founder that advocated that this thing would carry that level of wisdom through the ages” as to be treated as unchanging, he said.

Many federal functions are not mentioned in the Constitution, which was not designed for such a purpose. The document is supposed to be a broad and general statement, not a catalog of all conceivable federal functions. In some cases, the programs Angle mentions have already passed court muster regarding their constitutionality.

Some of her comments fall within the views of both Republicans and Democrats, particularly her criticism of one-size-fits-all mandates imposed on the states by cabinet departments.

Many political figures regard Angle’s early statements as the unrealistic, free-swinging rhetoric of a true believer who must now make the transition to mainstream candidate. She rarely mentions these proposals anymore, if at all, except in response to questions—and she does her best to avoid questions.

In the case of the Department of Energy, Reid’s stance is a bit of a surprise, because Energy has rarely been a good friend to Nevada, and Reid has been among its critics.

Nevada had long experience with one of the agencies that later became the Energy Department. The Atomic Energy Commission oversaw atomic testing in Nevada and did it badly. The AEC lied to the public about the safety of the testing, according to records disclosed later, and even endangered its own workers—often Nevadans. Not until Jan. 28, 2000, did its successor agency, DOE, admit that employees were harmed by “workplace” radiation exposures, finally prompted worker-compensation by Congress, though many workers had died off by then.

“The AEC was just the worst agency,” said late journalist I.F. Stone, who once caught the agency trying to torpedo a test ban treaty by lying about the seismic detectability of Nevada testing. “They were mendacious. They started out right off the bat by telling us that fallout was good for you, and it was all downhill from there.”

There have often been indications that the Energy Department absorbed some of those behavior patterns. In 1997 after Energy shipments of nuclear waste were found leaking in Nevada and Arizona, Reid said, “The DOE doesn’t know what it’s shipping or how it’s shipping it.”

In 1987 in a discussion of the proposed Yucca Mountain dump for high level nuclear wastes, Reid said flatly of the Energy Department, “They cheated.”

The two DOEs developed in different ways. The Energy Department was the product of the 1973 oil shortage and subsequent events when the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) embargoed oil deliveries, creating gas lines around the United States. This and subsequent developments created awareness of the limits on the nation’s ability to provide its own energy. Legislation creating the department was signed by President Carter on Aug. 4, 1977. It included not just agencies involved in power generation but also the AEC.

The Education Department, however, was created by a Democratic Congress in 1979 more or less as a favor to the National Education Association—a teachers group—for its support of Carter in the 1976 election. It began operating in 1980 with 450 employees. It now employs more than 4,800. As a candidate for president, Ronald Reagan promised to try to shut down the department, but as president was unable to accomplish it. Its budget is over $70 billion.

Critics say there is little evidence to support the idea that the Education Department has helped education. “Between 1973 and 2004, a period in which federal spending on education more than quadrupled, mathematics scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress rose just 1 percent for American 17-year-olds,” argued conservative columnist Mona Charen in a defense of Angle. “Between 1971 and 2004, reading scores remained completely flat.”

Lokken said that while opposition to the existence of government agencies does not necessarily translate into opposition to the functions of those agencies, in the case of Angle and the Department of Education, it probably does because she has been so outspoken on the notion that the Constitution prohibits any federal involvement in schools.

But he said that Angle and other rightists are rather late in raising constitutional objections to a federal education function. Education has been a cabinet department since 1953 and a sub-cabinet agency since 1867. During the Eisenhower administration it became a part of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, then was spun off into its own department in 1977.

So far, Reid has limited himself to attacking Angle’s idea of shutting down the two DOEs. He has not spelled out why he supports them in the first place. His office was asked for a statement of his views. A spokesperson replied, “Thanks to the Department of Education and the college aid programs it administers like Pell Grants, Perkins Loans and Work-Study, tens of thousands of Nevada students can achieve their dreams by getting a quality college education.”

However, federal funding currently provides only 8.3 percent of Nevada school money and has usually been less than that.

The Reid statement continued, “The Department of Energy is … is working to increase our nation’s energy supplies by investing in new technologies, modernizing our energy infrastructure, and even helping save families money by improving energy efficiency. Additionally, the Department of Energy plays an important role in our national security not only eliminating our dependence on foreign oil but preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction.”

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Dennis Myers
About Dennis Myers 1397 Articles
Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely Nevada, a children’s history textbook, and a contributor to the books The Mythical West and Covering the Courts in Nevada. In September, 2020, he was inducted into the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame.