The unasked question behind Rick Perry's 'oops' moment: Why eliminate those departments?

November 15, 2011|Thomas F. Schaller

By now you've seen Rick Perry's brain lapse during last week's CNBC-sponsored Republican presidential debate in Michigan. Education, Commerce and … (crickets chirping) … Energy.

Phew. Glad we cleared that up.

The Texas governor spent the next few days working the damage control television circuit, including an appearance on David Letterman's show to deliver the nightly Top 10 List. But as Mr. Perry tried to turn scornful gasps into self-effacing laughs, did anyone bother to ask him why he wants to eliminate these three Cabinet departments?

At present, we have 15 Cabinet agencies. In college I learned the mnemonic sentence — "See the dog jump in a circle…" — that political nerds like me use to remember the agencies in the order they were created: State, Treasury, Defense, Justice, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Energy, Education, Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security.

Like many of his fellow Republicans, Mr. Perry believes 15 is a few too many, and so eliminating this or that agency would lead to a more limited federal government and budget savings. Mr. Perry's short list sounds eerily similar to Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign pledge to reduce the number of Cabinet agencies by eliminating the Departments of Education and Energy, then the two newest agencies and both created during Jimmy Carter's lone term.

Eight years later, when Mr. Reagan left office, however, the two departments remained; by 1989, his Republican successor, George H.W. Bush, was applauding the creation of the Department of Veterans Affairs; and, of course, his son, George W. Bush, approved the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the 15th. The growing federal footprint is not always that of a cloven donkey.

But back to the question Mr. Perry was not asked: Why Commerce, Education and Energy?

They're not the three newest departments, which one might suppose would be the easiest to abandon given that we not long ago survived without them. Nor does Mr. Perry's short list include the largest Cabinet agencies in terms of total expenditures — which, if trimming federal fat were one's primary goal, would include the departments of Health and Human Services and Defense. And, given their policy mission and title, why aren't Housing and Urban Development or Labor on Mr. Perry's or any other Republican's target list?

The Department of Commerce is a particularly odd choice, given the incessant talk during these Republican debates about the importance of government providing the proper incentives for business to be "job creators." In the authorizing legislation for the department, created in 1903, the agency's stated mission is "to promote job creation and improved living standards for all Americans by creating an infrastructure that promotes economic growth, technological competitiveness, and sustainable development."

Energy? The GOP is the "drill, baby, drill" party. The party that wants to maximize natural gas extraction, regardless of warnings about the environmental and health risks. The party that wants to tap every last domestic energy resource.

Perhaps Mr. Perry believes any federal government action related to commerce or energy is intrusive. Still, each department features programs designed to encourage business growth and energy production. Only the Department of Education truly belongs on Mr. Perry's list. More than 90 percent of all education spending is state monies, and many conservatives believe states should run their schools with no federal imposition or support whatsoever.

Eliminating entire Cabinet agencies makes less sense than calling for an end to specific government functions or paring down their total budgets. According to a new Rasmussen poll, 60 percent of Americans would prefer to see cuts in every government program. One wonders whether Mr. Perry thoroughly considered his pledge, or if he's simply spewing some line a campaign consultant fed him.

Mr. Perry is suffering the political fallout for his gaffe. But the CNBC moderators lost a rare opportunity to ask him in a pointed, specific follow-up question to justify his answer. Mr. Perry's reply may not have yielded more fodder for "Saturday Night Live's" opening skit, as it did this past weekend. But I suspect his answer to that follow-up question would have revealed far more about his fitness for the nation's highest office than the memory freeze heard 'round the country.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. Email: schaller67@gmail.com.

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