Gov. Perry Should Be Glad
Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas) grinned and said it was a good thing he had his boots on. That's because he definitely "stepped in it" during the GOP debate at Oakland University in Michigan this week. He's being widely lampooned for "going blank" for 53 seconds during the debate, unable to recall the third federal agency he'd been promising to abolish.
Actually, I think Gov. Perry should be glad. What we're seeing in these gong shows is a most unseemly bidding contest. "I'll abolish three agencies." "I'll see your three and raise you two agencies." I can abolish faster than you can.
What's wrong with this? Everything. Candidate Ronald Reagan opposed the creation of the federal education and energy departments. His 1980 and 1984 platforms pledged to disestablish these unnecessary and wasteful bureaucracies. But he never said: "I will abolish them."
Why not? Because Ronald Reagan was a constitutional conservative. He knew that the president does not have the power to abolish any agencies, as dearly as he would like to, as fervently as he believes they should never have been established in the first place.
Even today, it's not uncommon to find young people grown cynical about Reagan's achievements. "He didn't even get rid of the education department," they say. I've been challenged on many occasions, especially when my younger friends find out I served in the U.S. Education Department under Ronald Reagan.
Under Reagan, we sought to make that unnecessary bureaucracy a voice for parents. Sec. Bill Bennett invited home schoolers in, giving them important legitimacy and putting his arm around them. Under Reagan, we tried to offer school vouchers for low-income parents. We published the famous Wall Chart that showed convincingly that student achievement was not causally related to the amount of money spent on public education by the states. Students in two of the states with the lowest per pupil expenditures -- North Dakota and New Hampshire -- were among the highest scorers on standardized tests. Even liberal Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was led to quip that perhaps distance from the Canadian border was the key indicator in student performance. Our smart Canadian neighbors must have liked that one.
Ronald Reagan never wavered in his conviction that the departments of energy and education should not have been created and should not be continued. But try as he might, he could not convince Congress to go along. Reagan knew that it was Congress that makes the final decision on the dismantling of federal agencies.
When a moderate Republican congressman, trying to trade his vote for Reagan's tax cuts, sought a meeting with the president to discuss "the future of the Education Department," Reagan penciled in the margin: "I hope it doesn't have one."
I, too, hope the federal education and energy departments don't have a future. But I know that Congress will have the final say in whether these wasteful and unnecessary bureaucracies stay or go.
Reagan won forty-four states in 1980 and forty-nine states in 1984. Still, he could not get rid of these departments. One of the main reasons he could not do so was liberal Republicans in the Senate. Lowell Weicker and Tom Stafford fronted for the Democrats in opposing Reagan's plans.
Today, we might expect folks like Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, and Scott Brown to blunt a conservative drive against these agencies. Who knows? Maybe they'd be joined by John McCain and Lindsey Graham, too.
It was interesting to see that Newt Gingrich largely stayed out of the bidding war for departmental demolition. Maybe that's because he does not want to remind primary voters of the raft of departments he pledged to abolish after his 1994 sweep to victory. Not one of them was eliminated.
It is a mistake for our GOP candidates to engage in one-upsmanship over ambitious plans to dismantle useless agencies. Perhaps this is one reason why President Obama is now edging back up in the polls.
I fully support all efforts to reduce the size and scope of the federal government. I would challenge anyone in America to show us any improvement in education brought about by the federal department. And what has the energy department given us except the Solyndra scandal?
The point is that we should not over-promise and under-perform. These gong show debates are degenerating into goon shows. Ronald Reagan wanted to downsize government, but he was no dictator. Those were all on the other side of that wall he wanted to tear down. Let's hope someone pulls the plug soon, before our candidates advance any further out onto rhetorical thin ice
Robert Morrison is a Reagan alumnus, a conservative blogger, and a veteran right-to-life activist.