First Rick Perry Can’t Remember the Name of the Department He Wants to Eliminate: Then He Can’t Remember to Eliminate It
Here’s a story of today’s Washington, also known as “the Swamp,” that has its origins in the 2012 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. The most memorable moment of that campaign – for those few who can remember anything at all about the 2012 presidential campaign – came courtesy of Rick Perry, then the governor of Texas. Perry thought his long, mostly successful, mostly conservative tenure in that office would make him catnip to Republican primary voters.
Instead, he managed to blow up before their very eyes, during a televised debate among all the presidential wannabes. As always, the candidates were tripping over one another to establish their Republican bona fides as quasi-libertarian, small-government conservatives. There are lots of ways for a candidate to do this – you can promise to eliminate the inheritance tax for everyone but Jeff Bezos, for instance, or empty out IRS headquarters and turn it into an Ayn Rand museum. Perry’s play for credibility was to boast about the cabinet departments he would eliminate, once elected. There were three of them, he said, stretching out his fingers. Count ’em: one, two… two…
Perry couldn’t count ’em.
“It’s three agencies of government that when I get there [to Washington] that are gone [sic]. Commerce, Education, and the uh what’s the third one there? Let’s see…”
For 40 excruciating seconds, Perry mumbled and stared helplessly at his cheat-sheet notecards, until finally: “The third one… I can’t. Sorry. Oops.” If it weren’t for his campaign-ready perma-tan, he probably would have blushed.
That last oops should have been Perry’s political epitaph. But politicians are hard to put to sleep – The only cure for a pol with presidential ambitions, a wise man once said, is embalming fluid. So Perry was back on the trail in 2015, having at last memorized the name of the third cabinet department he was going to destroy, and he repeated the Unholy Trinity wherever he went. Then Donald Trump flattened him like roadkill, just as Trump did his other Republican opponents, all 15 of them.
The third department of Perry’s dreams was, of course, the Department of Energy, a vastly expensive, poorly supervised enterprise that manages to obscure the few necessary and admirable things it does within a molten blob of bureaucracy. This article is not the first and will not be the last to note the irony that the present Secretary of Energy is… a man who once forgot he wanted to abolish it. But he remembers now, sheepishly.
After Trump nominated him for his new job, Perry went before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. There was something craven – and, in Washington at least, quite common – about his appearance before the committee. All those emphatic statements about abolishing the department, Perry told the senators, “do not reflect my current thinking.”
We’re right to suspect Perry’s conversion was an instance of “bureaucratic capture,” that ugly cave-in to which small-government true believers succumb when they confront the difficulties of putting their principles into practice. Perry went even further in explaining his change of heart. He was now a big booster of the department, he said, because someone actually told him what it does. You’d think he might have looked into that before he so ineptly made a point of declaring his opposition to its existence.
“I have spoken several times to Secretary [Ernest] Moniz [of the Obama administration] and his predecessors,” Perry told the senators. “I have learned a great deal about the important work being done every day by the outstanding men and women of the DOE… In fact, after being briefed on so many of the vital functions of the Department of Energy, I regret recommending its elimination.” Having taken himself to his own woodshed and paddled his own bottom before anyone else could, Perry was easily confirmed.
Too bad – Perry was right the first time. Doing away with the Department of Energy has been an item near the top of the small-government wish list since Jimmy Carter and Congress created it in 1977. Ronald Reagan promised to abolish the department during his 1980 campaign against Carter. Unique among Republican politicians, Reagan actually tried to do it.
In 1982, he proposed a plan to disaggregate the department and redistribute its most important functions across other cabinet departments – Interior and Commerce especially. The unspoken Reaganite reasoning was that if its indispensable obligations were being met elsewhere in the government, the energy department’s meddlesome regulatory and grant-making operations would be orphaned and then throttled. Also, there was – and still is – the gratifying message sent by watching an entire department of the federal government go “poof.”
Congress wouldn’t let it happen. It had established the department just five years before and was getting to like all the new energy grants and loans and programs raining down on the folks back home. Congress blocked Reagan’s plan, and the behemoth, fat and happy, has only grown since then – even as libertarian-minded politicians pelt it with ineffectual insults. With an annual budget approaching $30 billion, it employs 13,000 workers (average salary: $114,000). Another 100,000 workers report to the department as private contractors. From its extravagantly ugly headquarters off the National Mall in Washington, it reaches into every state, pumping money into nearly every congressional district, fooling around here and there with this and that, the way nosey bureaucrats do.
The most important thing to know about the Department of Energy is that it doesn’t have much to do with energy. As the economic historian Peter Z. Grossman recounts in his brutal history, U.S. Energy Policy and the Pursuit of Failure, the department was conceived in the pessimism of the 1970s, when “limits to growth” and “era of limits” were the favorite phrases of progressive politicians. It was assumed that traditional sources of energy (fossil fuels in particular) were drying up, the Earth was exhausting itself, and it was left to government to manage the decline. Perhaps a new cabinet-level department could enforce efforts to get Americans to reduce their consumption of energy (the euphemism for this was “conservation”), and accommodate themselves to the new gloomy reality. Meanwhile, bureaucrats could finance efforts to find new kinds of energy to replace the oil and coal they thought were disappearing.
The creation of the department, in other words, was an act of panic. But it was soon obvious that panic was unnecessary.
The creation of the department, in other words, was an act of panic. But it was soon obvious that panic was unnecessary. Carter began, and Reagan continued, the deregulation of oil markets. The U.S. diversified its sources of oil. OPEC, the Middle Eastern cartel that had orchestrated U.S. gas shortages, collapsed under the weight of a sudden oil glut. The “energy crisis” went away and so did the rationale for a Department of Energy. So the department did what bureaucracies always do when they accomplish their mission…
Congratulating themselves on a job well done, the bureaucrats quietly vacated their offices and found more useful employment elsewhere.
Kidding! I’m kidding! No. Lacking a reason to exist, the department simply invented new reasons to exist. With Reagan’s valiant shutdown attempt blocked by Congress, the department assumed oversight and maintenance of the nation’s nuclear weapons and took responsibility for cleaning up nuclear waste sites. (The sites, of course, had been created by the scandalous mismanagement of the same federal government that was now trying to clean them up – a sinister illustration of Bastiat’s broken window fallacy if there ever was one.) For the past 30 years, these non-energy related tasks have consumed two-thirds of the department’s budget and a large majority of its workforce. Both tasks could be handled more efficiently, and with less distraction, by a standalone sub-cabinet agency on the model of the EPA. But don’t tell anybody that.
What about the final third of the Department of Energy’s budget? Surprise: It deals with energy – or more precisely, with overseeing the citizens who deal with energy. Some of it goes for research at the department’s numerous national laboratories, which would likely be more productive as privately owned entities (but shhhh!). The rest of the department’s money is scattered across baffling ranks of frontline agencies, sub-tier agencies, departments within departments, programs, and projects, all of them writing regulations and offering grants, subsidies, loan guarantees, and other delights furnished by the taxpayer. From the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to the Savannah River Site Special Projects Office, the Department of Energy never sleeps.
Perry’s Twitter feed sparkles with cheerful encouragement and praise for all the bureaucrats he once wanted to fire.
Reformed, our new secretary is a fan of all the hustle and bustle. Perry’s Twitter feed sparkles with cheerful encouragement and praise for all the bureaucrats he once wanted to fire. From the start, the department has heavily subsidized renewable forms of energy, evidently on the theory they are so unpromising no one except the government would be crazy enough to fund them. The subsidies operate as classic cases of crony capitalism.
Take Solyndra, the legendary solar company, for example. It was a favorite of solar-happy Barack Obama, who called it “an engine of growth” when he visited the plant early in his presidency, just a few months before it went bankrupt. In a happy coincidence, the company’s major investors were also generous donors to the Democratic party. After Solyndra went toes-up, it was taxpayers, not the donors, who ate its $535 million in loans from Obama’s Energy Department.
The main shift in energy policy under Perry has been his attempt to slash subsidies for renewables. His purpose, though, isn’t to eliminate the sleazy temptations of crony capitalism on behalf of the taxpayer. His purpose is to redirect the subsidies from wind and solar companies to the really fabulous, fantastic, unbelievable coal companies that supported President Trump so vigorously in 2016.
In Washington, cronies may come and go. The Department of Energy is forever.
Andrew Ferguson is the author of several books, including Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course on Getting His Kid Into College. He is a former speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush and a current senior editor at The Weekly Standard.