Sorry to say, the biggest joke this week wasn’t Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry’s debating skills –- though they are indeed something to behold -- but rather the running canard that any candidate, save perhaps libertarian Ron Paul, would actually attempt to shut down a federal agency, much less mention the idea after they were elected.
By now most everyone has seen Perry’s performance in the CNBC presidential debate wherein the governor of Texas claimed that he would scale back three federal departments to cut government spending and influence. He rattled off two -- Education and Commerce – before subjecting millions of perfectly innocent viewers to a looooong and uncomfortable silence in which he failed to produce a third.
(Energy, man. The Department of Energy! You’re from Texas.)
Surely any small-government conservative can rattle off an array of needless bureaucratic departments and agencies they’d like to trash – from the Transportation Security Administration to the National Endowment for the Arts. But Perry is human and even the slickest of humans occasionally struggles with recall or grapples with the perfect word or pertinent fact. Then again, perhaps Perry’s answer wasn’t easily accessible because the entire premise is a sham and he knows it. No one is shutting down any federal agency. The only time Washington scales back the number of federal agencies is when they start combining them and making them stronger and more intrusive. See: The Department of Homeland Security.
Conservatives have heard this promise forever: Ronald Reagan pledged to submit a budget that would “dismantle” the Department of Education. In the 90s, the Republican Party platform featured a promise to shut down the DOE. Yet by the early 2000s, George Bush had expanded the scope and power of the DOE through No Child Left Behind in ways that now allows the Obama Administration to strengthen unions rather than offer the parental choice that the previous administration had promised.
That’s not to say it’s a crazy idea, of course, despite the establishment’s aversion to it. MSNBC’s Jonathan Alter summed up the media’s conventional view when he tweeted: “The real Perry gaffe wasn't brain freeze but idiotic idea of killing three federal agencies in the first place.”
Idiotic, right? Tenth Amendment of the Constitution has some nonsense about "powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." But that’s so jejune, right? So outdated.
Remember that it is within these agencies that regulatory regimes blossom and economic growth is inhibited, where winners and loser are picked, where subsidies are handed out, where bad policy is implemented, and where nannies concoct their plans. This bureaucratic outbreak hit the nation under FDR and has yet to be put down.
So there is a legitimate argument for reducing the power of these agencies but it’s not going to happen anytime soon. To begin with no president is going to have the power to come in and shut them down – not today. Moreover, none of these Republicans candidates – including Perry – have the skills, the support and the political backbone to do the job. And I don't believe any of them would even try.
Fortunately, or tragically, there are plenty of pressing and real problems they can tackle. Give us a real plan for reforming entitlements, for cutting spending and for creating a more prosperous atmosphere for the economy. Talk of shutting down departments is a convenient position but it’s also a platitudinous one that makes a candidate look unserious.