Donald Trump’s nomination of former Texas Governor Rick Perry to lead the Department of Energy — the same Department the Governor famously forgot to name in his list of three government agencies he would abolish if he were President — has me thinking a lot about history.
The economic boom, known as The Great Prosperity, which grew in America for more than 30 years following World War II, allowing millions of Americans to earn better wages for their work and afford a better standard of living year after year, let more Americans own cars, and second cars, and travel more with their families than they’d ever done before — which grew our demand for oil considerably.
Now we produced most of our own oil during that time, from wells in Texas and Oklahoma and other places, but our demand began to out pace our own supply, and we had to import the rest from overseas, from the Oil Producing and Exporting Countries (OPEC) in the Middle East. But these same countries weren’t exactly our allies at the time, or even now, and they didn’t like our overly aggressive foreign policy in those late 1960s, early 1970s years, so they used their strategic advantage over us — our dependence upon their oil — to cut off supply and cripple our economy.
Throughout the early- and mid-1970s this disastrous energy crisis led to oil shortages and long lines at gas stations, and dramatically high gas and oil prices, and other very serious problems. Our prosperity and dependence upon oil was being used as a weapon against us.
So in 1976 Jimmy Carter promised a new energy plan, one which would save us from these problems; and he won the Presidency, and in 1977 convinced Congress to create a new Cabinet-level Executive agency, the Department of Energy — to coordinate disparate efforts of creating our own energy and help alleviate some of the problems our dependence upon foreign oil exposed us to.
Thus was created the Department of Energy.
Similarly, uncoordinated efforts among disparate school districts, with different standards of quality and levels of funding, produced wildly different and unequal levels of education among America’s students — with poor schools in poor areas being disastrously underfunded and inadequate, but with no one to turn to for help.
So President Carter pushed also for the creation of another new Cabinet-level Executive agency, a Department of Education — “to give much better service, to provide a consistent policy, and to eliminate many of the legal disputes which had long plagued the system — all these benefits combined with lower administrative costs and fewer employees” (Carter, Keeping Faith, pg. 76).
The Department of Education was created in October 1979.
These new federal agencies, though, didn’t sit well with the former Governor of California who was then running for President, Ronald Reagan. He saw their creation and mission as a vast overreach by the federal government into matters of local politics, and he advocated for the destruction of both these two new agencies.
Energy was not really a big part of Reagan’s campaign, however, so it was never seriously focused on; but education was, and he got the Republican Party to officially adopt his position into their 1980 platform: “the Republican Party supports the deregulation by the federal government of public education, and encourages the elimination of the federal Department of Education.” The platform does mention the Department of Energy, but does not suggest eliminating it.
After defeating Carter and winning the Presidency, Reagan appointed Ted Bell to serve as Secretary of the Department of Education, and Jim Edwards to serve as Secretary of the Department of Energy, with mandates to destroy the two Departments; and in his first State of the Union address mentioned, “The budget plan I submit to you on February 8th will realize major savings by dismantling the Departments of Energy and Education and by eliminating ineffective subsidies to businesses” (January 26, 1982).
Some minor effort was made to dismantle the Department of Energy, at the end of 1981, start of 1982, but it never went anywhere in Congress, and no one pushed for it. But Ted Bell, being an actual educator, worked hard against the Reagan Administration to keep alive the Department of Education. (He describes this battle vividly in his 1988 book, The Thirteenth Man.)
Bell used the power of his Department to commission an independent report about the state of American schools, and this short report — called “A Nation At Risk” — described the many challenges schools faced and students suffered under, and the dire need for federal support and guidance.
Reagan read the report and was shocked by it — as was most of America — and softened his tone about the Department of Education. The 1984 Republican Party Platform does not mention abolishing either the Departments of Energy or Education.
Over the next 30 years, too, Republicans talked only infrequently about these two Departments — although moderate Republican Haley Barbour does mention abolishing both in his 1996 book, Agenda for America — and others they would eliminate, like the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency — created by President Nixon), but no serious action was ever taken against them.
Even President Bush, no moderate Republican he, made no efforts to dismantle or defund the Departments of Energy or Education — and he even created a new Cabinet-level Executive agency, the Department of Homeland Security.
But now Donald Trump is in charge, and he’s wildly, dangerously unpredictable.
He has written about abolishing the Department of Education, in his book Crippled America: “Now the federal Department of Education has been dictating educational policy for too long, and that needs to stop. … A lot of people believe the Department of Education should just be eliminated. Get rid of it. If we don’t eliminate it completely, we certainly need to cut it’s power and reach. … I am totally against these programs and the Department of Education” (pgs. 50 – 51).
Trump wants Betsy DeVos to lead the Department of Education, and I don’t know where she stands on the issue of abolishing the Department. Will Trump want her to destroy it, or will he not? He’s wildly inconsistent on every issue, changing positions all the time, so who knows. And will Betsy DeVos do it, or will she be another Ted Bell and argue against the administration? I hope for the latter, but I don’t know anything about Betsy DeVos or what she’ll do.
Trump has not mentioned the Department of Energy in any of his political books (and I looked), so I don’t know where he stands on abolishing it. But he wants Rick Perry to lead the Department, and Rick Perry wants to shut down the Department — so who knows what’ll happen there.
History only gives us so many answers. The rest we have to figure out for ourselves. And I just don’t know what Donald Trump is going to do with the two Departments of Energy and Education, and the not knowing is painful.
What do you think?