TCS Daily

Department of Everything

By Radley Balko - October 3, 2002 12:00 AM

In 1992, Congress passed the Energy Policy Act, a big, honking piece of legislation that sought to codify into federal law the thousands of administrative laws put forth by the Department of Energy. It set crucial, national-security-affecting policies such as how cold refrigerators were permitted to be.

Also included in that massive bill was a tiny, barely-noticed-at-the-time provision mandating that every toilet sold in the United States after the year 1994 use no more than 1.6 gallons of water per flush. That provision quickly became known in toilet industry circles (yes, there are toilet industry circles) as the "flush twice rule," as patriotic, beef-eating Americans who bought domestic toilets after 1994 had no choice but to flush twice to be sure all their business washed away before houseguests arrived. It also created - I'm not kidding - a "black market" for Canadian toilets - toilets with big, glorious, gluttonous bowls, capable of holding 3, 3 ½, even four gallons of water.

I bring this up because the Department of Energy turns 25 years old this week. And despite an annual budget of $18 billion, 20,000 full-time employees, and 150,000 contract employees, smaller toilet bowls are probably the most memorable thing that's come out of the DOE that's had a significant impact on your life. And I'd venture to guess that most of us don't see smaller toilet bowls as a positive.

Today, this is the public face of American energy. Inspiring, isn't he? Screams "energy!" He is Spencer Abraham, the current U.S. Secretary of the Department of Energy. He's also probably the best example in modern government of how federal bureaucracy can swallow a man, principles and all, into its behemoth belly of red tape, white paper and do-goodism.

When Spence Abraham was a principled U.S. Senator - a mere two years ago - he sponsored legislation to abolish the DOE. In a 1997 Washington Times op-ed, he wrote:

"Energy oversees everything from nuclear waste disposal to energy conservation to corporate welfare . . . What is not unneeded or harmful in this would be better secured without Energy's wasteful umbrella organization."

At the time of that op-ed, the DOE was celebrating its 20th anniversary. I know, because it's listed in the "Department of Energy Timeline," a publication put out just recently to celebrate the DOE's 25th anniversary. It says it right there: "October 1, 2002: Department of Energy celebrates its twentieth anniversary."

Other items of note:

  • "April 1, 2000: The Department of Energy celebrates Earth Day."

  • "May 3, 1978: On Sun Day - a nationwide salute to solar energy - President Carter tours DOE's Solar Energy Research Institute in Golden, Colorado."

The introduction to the "Department of Energy's 25th Anniversary Timeline" is written by Spencer Abraham. Here is what Spencer Abraham, Secretary of the Department of Energy has to say about the Department of Energy today:

"I am proud to serve as Secretary of Energy during the Department's 25th Anniversary celebration . . .In 1977 the new Department of Energy brought together for the first time not only most of the government's energy programs but also science and technology programs and defense responsibilities that included the design, construction and testing of nuclear weapons . . . As we look ahead, I am optimistic that we will fulfill our responsibilities and our success will be a great contribution to our energy and national security for generations to come."

Spence Abraham, principled Senator, meet Spence Abraham, optimistic bureaucrat. Of course, all things being equal, it's probably best having an avowed critic of bloated government running a bloated government agency. And Abraham does talk frequently about the virtues of free markets, even if he's overseeing an agency that too frequently butts into those free markets.

The DOE was created to ease public concerns about the energy crisis of the late 1970s. In theory, the agency was charged with encouraging conservation, easing our dependence on oil, and researching alternative, renewable energy sources. Today, oil and natural gas are cheaper and less scarce than they were in 1977. Americans drive more than they ever have before, and lots of mini-energy "crises" that have sprung up have largely been because of DOE meddling in energy markets, not in spite of it.

In truth, Congress threw under the DOE's auspices a wide array of responsibilities and oversight that it couldn't pawn off on other agencies. The DOE today dips its tentacles in everything from "distance learning" to wiring rural homes with cable television to the mapping of the human genome. And nearly 80% of the DOE's current budget is spent not on energy renewal or conservation, but on maintaining, protecting and cleaning up the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal.

At best, a lot of the things DOE does would simply stop and the important things DOE does would be handled by another agency. Might the U.S. nuclear arsenal be better handled by, say, the Pentagon? Or the National Security Agency?

At worst, DOE energy policies are wasteful, even harmful to the best interests of American consumers. Markets, not planners, are by far the most efficient way of both distributing energy, and insuring that Americans are making the best energy choices.

Consider markets for alternative energy sources. These sources will spring up when it's economically viable for them to do so. Once fossil fuel prices float high enough to make the research and development necessary to bring new energy sources to the market profitable, we'll get the moss-powered cars we've been waiting for. Federally funded research grants and development boondoggles from DOE amount to little more than corporate welfare for the auto giants.

For 25 years, American taxpayers have fed tens of billions of dollars annually to the DOE leviathan. In return, we've reaped carelessly guarded nuclear secrets, unwarranted, counter-productive meddling in energy markets, and no real progress toward alternative or renewable energy sources. Also, many a backed-up toilet.

Happy birthday, DOE. Here's hoping for one, maybe two more.



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