Where’s Sam Bodman

Where’s Sam?

Energy Secretary Sam “The Sham” Bodman has been absent from the discussions in Washington in recent months about energy prices and energy policies. What does this say about Bodman?

It says that neither Sam nor the Department of Energy have any influence in Bush administration energy policies. That’s not a bad thing. Energy prices are a function of markets. DOE has no influence in those markets. Nor should it.

On the other hand, the absence of DOE from the discussion of energy prices of late suggests that maybe DOE should have its wings clipped, even amputated. Yes, this is my annual whine about why we don’t need a U.S. Department of Energy. Stay with me.

I covered the creation DOE for Congressional Quarterly in 1977. I thought it was a bad idea from the start, although I was then a conventional liberal. I had spent some years in government and found that the urge to consolidate powers in a single agency in a crisis and throw money at problems is foolish. My experience was Nixon’s “War on Cancer,” when I worked at the National Institutes of Health in the early 1970s.

Now, I’m a rather unconventional liberal, skeptical of concentrated government power in most areas of society and the economy. That includes energy.

When Jimmy Carter and Jim Schlesinger created DOE, it was Schlesinger’s great power grab. consolidateHHe sucked in R&D programs and funding from the National Science Foundation, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Mines (where my father had worked for more than 30 years), the R&D remnants of the Atomic Energy Commission (where Schlesinger had been chairman), and other agencies across the federal landscape.

Schlesinger’s grand energy vision never worked. Amalgamating and integrating the many diverse research and development programs from around the federal government proved exceedingly difficult. Layered upon that were new regulatory responsibilities (now, thankfully, historical relicts such as the implementation of oil price controls and the fundamentally-stupid windfall profits tax on oil companies). DOE became, and still is, an incoherent collection of uncoordinated functions.

This, of course, is the exact model for the Department of Homeland Security, created after the 9/11 attack. DHS is a great discredit to both congressional and executive branch authorities in both parties, who failed to learn from the past, creating another administrative dinosaur to deal with a nimble and creative threat.

Back to DOE. In Sam Bodman’s reign (that’s a strong word, maybe “cameo appearance” would be better?), crude oil prices jumped from $70/barrel to $147/barrel and back to under $100/barrel. Did DOE have anything to do with this, either in the run-up or the run-down?

The clear answer is “No.” Nor did the giant energy bureaucracy have any advice to give to the nation or the White House on how to manage the latest energy “crisis.” Sam Bodman was, it appears, AWOL. There’s no evidence in the public record that DOE or Bodman had any impact on the White House reaction to crude oil and gasoline price increases and declines.

It’s really not Sam’s fault. The whole notion – initially promoted by Carter and Schlesinger and carried forward by all following administrations – of a central “energy ministry” is a fraud. There is nothing that a cabinet-level energy department can bring to national policy discussions that could not have been advanced by the separate agencies that the Congress and the Carter administration ripped apart to create DOE.

I would argue that, when it comes to energy understanding and energy policy, the DOE proves that the sum can be less than its parts. I’ve been pushing that case for some 30 years, and I’m not giving up yet.

As for Sam, I’ve had a lot of fun bashing him over the past couple of years (I slammed his predecessor, empty suit Spence Abraham, a lot harder). But Sam wasn’t calling the shots at the Energy Department. That was his deputy, Clay Sell, a White House apparatchik. Bodman ultimately must have felt he’d signed onto a slippery deal when he agreed to become secretary of energy, but without much real influence over energy policy.

So long, Sam, we won’t really miss you. But we look forward to a replacement – by either new administration – as a new target for ridicule.