Rejected applications show bureaucracy in action

Someone once warned that you can’t outlaw stupidity. The federal government is living, constant proof of that. Bureaucrats with encyclopedic knowledge of the red tape they created too often seem to prefer it to common sense.

Action by the U.S. Department of Education earlier this year illustrated the phenomenon. For decades, a federal program has doled out money colleges and universities can use through the Upward Bound program to help students from low-income families. No one can say how many young people got degrees rather than disappointment because of the help.

But earlier this year, the DOE rejected applications from many institutions throughout the country because their paperwork contained formatting errors. Others were turned down because of insignificant mistakes involving program budgets.

One in the latter category was West Virginia University, where a dollar figure was rounded up by just $2. West Virginia State University’s application was rejected because of a minor typographical error.

Fine, officials at those institutions and others throughout the country responded. We’ll correct the errors and submit new applications.

No dice, said DOE bureaucrats. Rejection of the applications was final, with no possibility of appeal.

Then new Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos took office. At first, she indicated the applications could be reconsidered, but later, she said that would not be possible.

One wonders about a gigantic bureaucracy with the power to say no to an order from its statutory boss.

During one congressional hearing, U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., confronted DeVos about that. “I don’t accept that you can’t relook at something,” Capito said, adding that the program in question is important to many low-income students.

Apparently, there is a way to give the colleges a second chance — an act of Congress.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has introduced a bill, the Defending Educational Opportunities for West Virginia Students Act of 2017, that would allow DeVos to review and reconsider such applications. It ought to be enacted, of course.

But that leaves the fundamental problem — a bureaucracy running amok — untouched. Unfortunately, correcting that might well require passage of a law outlawing stupidity.