Oops. He’s doing it again.

Eliminating the department would mean parceling out most of its activities to other federal agencies, a sleight of hand maneuver that might create the appearance of smaller government but would disrupt the ordinary operations of the federal government. 

oops

Is Donald Trump punking America?

Donald Trump has tapped former Texas Governor Rick Perry to head up the Department of Energy.

If you were a writer for SNL and were tasked with drafting a humorous skit about Trump choosing a Secretary of Energy—an unenviable assignment to be sure—you’d be staring in the face one option and one option only.  You’d gotta go with Trump choosing the “oops guy,” the former Governor of Texas who, in a GOP presidential debate in 2011, famously forgot the third of the three federal cabinet agencies he would seek to eliminate were he elected president.

The department name he forgot? The Department of Energy, naturally.

Oops he did it again.

Watching Perry’s brain freeze in real time was agonizing for empathetic souls—just the cringiest of cringe moments–and his campaign, wobbly to begin with, tottered immediately afterward; two months after the debate he quit his 2012 campaign. Much (in my opinion, too much) was made of the moment.  He was hastily, and wrongly, described as unfit to be President.

A candidate shouldn’t be defined by a single mental lapse, and unfortunately the media was more fixated by the gaffe than the deeper issue, the wisdom of Perry’s judgment to eliminate the Department of Energy.   Sensible people can argue about whether one ought to eliminate the Department of Education, one of the two departments he did remember along with the Department of Commerce.  Eliminating Education would be a boneheaded move, but it wouldn’t be catastrophic.  But is the Department of Energy equally disposable as Perry suggested—or would have suggested had he conjured the name?  What in the world does it do, anyway? Are its responsibilities the kinds of activities that can be wisely eliminated and left safely to the free market or devolved to the states without jeopardizing the public good?

As far as cabinet departments go the Department of Energy is relatively new, created under President Carter.  Its creation was designed to consolidate several other federal agencies whose tasks were carried out by a number of federal agencies for decades prior to the consolidation.  Like all Cabinet-level agencies, the Department of Energy pursues a number of goals but its chief responsibilities include scientific research (such as the research to develop fusion), administering our nuclear weapons production program, and the handling of nuclear waste.  It’s conceivable that some of the research duties could be eliminated—though that would likely prove myopic—but the oversight of nuclear energy, weapons production, and nuclear waste are obviously best suited for the federal government.  No one wants nuclear waste in their backyard, and the NIMBYs would make effective state control of nuclear waste inconceivable. Therefore eliminating the department would likely mean neither the privatization of its tasks nor even the devolution of the department’s most important tasks to states. It would mean parceling most of its activities out to other federal agencies, a sleight of hand maneuver that might create the appearance of smaller government but would effectively complicate matters and disrupt the ordinary operations of the federal government.

It’s not clear what Trumps motive is in selecting Perry for this position if for no other reason it’s never quite clear what Trump’s motives are. But we are seeing a pattern of Trump choosing leaders who are hostile to the agencies they are chosen to lead.  Trump’s tactic of bringing in critics to an agency is not a new tactic, but the frequency of the use of it is unprecedented.   True, Ronald Reagan had appointed “anti-environmentalist” James G. Watt as Secretary of the Department of Interior—a huge and complicated department with mixed and sometimes conflicting goals.  His appointment was controversial, but the department’s activities were diverse enough to provide him with some internal support. Nonetheless his tenure proved highly contentious and lasted only two years.  It also sparked renewed environmental activism and Watt served as an effective bogeyman for the environmental movement.  The track record of the Leader-as-Opponent is not promising.

Whether Trump’s decisions are for show or for substantive action, or both, is not clear.  It’s unlikely that Perry will work at dismantling the entire Department given its vital functions, but it’s also almost equally likely that he will attempt—both for substantive and symbolic reasons—to dismantle part of it, most probably the research components aimed at researching and funding clean fuel alternatives to fossil fuels.  But above all he is signaling with this pick that Trump has no love of the alternative fuels that threaten his beloved coal and oil constituencies.

 

 

FILED UNDER: Bureaucracy, Donald Trump, Energy Policy, Government
Michael Bailey
About Michael Bailey
Michael is Associate Professor of Government and International Studies at Berry College in Rome, GA. His academic publications address the American Founding, the American presidency, religion and politics, and governance in liberal democracies. He also writes on popular culture, and his articles on, among other topics, patriotism, Church and State, and Kurt Vonnegut, have been published in Prism and Touchstone. He earned his PhD from the University of Texas in Austin, where he also earned his BA. He’s married and has three children. He joined OTB in November 2016.

Comments

  1. Mr. Bluster says:

    when you are up to your ass in alligators,
    it’s hard to remember why you started draining the swamp.

    The buck will never stop at President Pud’s Oval Office and the heat will never reach his kitchen.
    He is appointing these charlatans so there will be someone else to blame when proposed policies fail and we are up to our asses in alligators.

    (The bucks will be diverted to an offshore account.)

  2. Hal_10000 says:

    To be fair, Perry had no intention of eliminating the Department of Energy. He was just playing to the GOP base. That’s why we couldn’t remember it.

  3. Ben Wolf says:

    Polanyi’s Rule: Any effort to improve functioning of “free, self-regulating and autonomous” markets by limiting government will result in greater bureaucracy, government size and intrusion.

  4. Eric Florack says:

    So your argument is that there’s no way to shrink the federal government?

  5. KM says:

    @Eric Florack :

    So your argument is that there’s no way to shrink the federal government?

    I believe his argument is there’s no way to shrink the government and address legitimate need by playing shuffle the title. If you’re doing passed on DoE work but happened to be employed by, oh lets say DoJ for absurdities’ sake, you are essentially working for the DoE (without the compensation for the extra work, of course). There will still be a de facto DoE that just tanked in performance but now you can’t do anything about it since it’s spread out everywhere.

    Eliminating or streamlining positions, projects and even whole divisions makes sense if proper justification and planning takes place to ensure nothing gets messed up in the process. But taking an ax to a whole section of the government just because you don’t understand what it does, think it worthless and that any of those lazy federal employees can absorb the work no problemo is just flat out ignorant. Beware consultants and outside idiots who causally suggest you don’t *really* need Dept X- they only care about how much they can get in fees before Initech goes up in flames.

  6. Slugger says:

    I would like the Department of Energy to help lead a movement away from petroleum. The price and efficiency of solar panels has been dropping. At the same time battery technology (made in America by Elon Musk) has been improving. Many people looking at a future of substantial self generation of power by home owners and electric cars are sounding less and less like science fiction writers and more and more like people with practical solutions.
    Lower need for petroleum defangs the producers of crude oil which allows us to say goodbye to the truly crazy wars and killings in the Middle East. This would improve our country’s security more than any weapon system and requires no boots on the ground. It would also lower Russia’s ability to support military adventures.
    I fear that putting a Putin pal in the White House, a Putin pal at State, and a dim bulb from Texas at Energy will hinder the weaning off petroleum.
    I saw that Priebus defended Perry’s abilities by saying that Perry had gained experience by being governor of Texas. The last guy who we moved from the governorship of Texas to a federal job did not inspire me to think highly of Texas governors as a class.

  7. Grumpy Realist says:

    Yes it will be interesting to watch Trump’s getting rid of the Department of Commerce, given that the authority to handle patents is written into the Constitution.

  8. Mikey says:

    @Grumpy Realist: He probably thinks that’s handled in Article 12.

  9. Mr. Prosser says:

    Doug, your first sentence sums up the last two years and counting.

  10. J-Dub says:

    His fitness for office was also hurt by his stoner diatribe about his love for maple syrup.

  11. J-Dub says:

    @Slugger:

    (made in America by Elon Musk)

    Are we really prepared to let the future of American energy production be led by an African immigrant?

  12. Stormy Dragon says:

    I think you’re missing the key point here: Rick Perry wears glasses.

    Do you wear glasses Dr. Bailey? No? Then clearly Rick Perry knows more about energy policy than you do.

  13. Moosebreath says:

    @Slugger:

    “I would like the Department of Energy to help lead a movement away from petroleum.”

    For the duration of the Trump administration, in the words of one of my co-workers, who is in her 60’s, “And I wish I were 25 and blonde”.

  14. al-Ameda says:

    Trump is not draining the swamp he is the de-facto head of the swamp and he’s now expanding it from the Republican House to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The transition to this minority president-elect is beginning to have a hybrid First World-Third World feel to it.

    As they say, elections have consequences.

  15. C. Clavin says:

    @Eric Florack:

    So your argument is that there’s no way to shrink the federal government?

    You nimrods have been talking about shrinking the federal government for years and have never done it when in charge. Obama has the lowest government employee to civilian ratio by far…cleans Republican clocks!!! And, of course, then you nimrods complain about the effect that has on the economy.
    You boneheads are like little children
    You whine to get what you want, and when you get it you don’t actually want it.

  16. C. Clavin says:

    @Mikey:

    He probably thinks that’s handled in Article 12.

    Subtle. And funny.

  17. DrDaveT says:

    Sorry, but I have to point this out if you’re going to use the phrase repeatedly:

    sleight (n.)
    “cunning,” early 14c. alteration of sleahthe (c. 1200), from Old Norse sloegð “cleverness, cunning, slyness,” from sloegr (see sly). Meaning “skill, cleverness, dexterity” is from late 14c. Meaning “feat or trick requiring quickness and nimbleness of the hands” is from 1590s. Term sleight of hand is attested from c. 1400.

    Not to be confused with:

    slight (adj.)
    early 14c., “flat, smooth; hairless,” probably from a Scandinavian source akin to Old Norse slettr “smooth, sleek,” from Proto-Germanic *slikhtaz (source also of Old Saxon slicht; Low German slicht “smooth, plain common;” Old English -sliht “level,” attested in eorðslihtes “level with the ground;” Old Frisian sliucht “smooth, slight,” Middle Dutch sleht “even, plain,” Old High German sleht, Gothic slaihts “smooth”), probably from a collateral form of PIE *sleig- “to smooth, glide, be muddy,” from root *(s)lei- “slimy” (see slime (n.)).

    Sense evolution probably is from “smooth” (c. 1300), to “slim, slender; of light texture,” hence “not good or strong; insubstantial, trifling, inferior, insignificant” (early 14c.). Meaning “small in amount” is from 1520s.

  18. DrDaveT says:

    the oversight of nuclear energy, weapons production, and nuclear waste are obviously best suited for the federal government

    Indeed, though I would love to hear one of our resident Libertarians either dispute the point or explain how a Libertarian could reach that conclusion.

    More importantly — do you also feel that managing the transition from a fossil fuel economy to a post-petrochemical energy economy is also “obviously best suited for the federal government”? If not, why not?

  19. Tyrell says:

    @Slugger: There is the recent news that an em rocket engine has been developed that can reach the moon in ten weeks ! That is the type of work and development that we have looking for ! An engine that does not use some kind of fuel or chemicals.
    The energy department could be a sort of research “pentagon” that would do research and develop alternative energies; including such ideas as a turbine engine for cars and thorium reactors. It would recruit the top engineers and inventors.

  20. C. Clavin says:

    @Tyrell:

    That is the type of work and development that we have looking for

    Too bad you voted for Trump, then.
    ‘Cause all you’re getting now, silly Tyrell, is oil and coal to match Dumb Don’s stock portfolio.
    Every single person Trump has appointed to a cabinet position is only about fossil fuels.
    Research and development are going to grind to a halt.
    Climate change will accelerate. He has already initiated a McCarthy-like witch-hunt for anyone in the Government that has done climate change research.
    The quality of our air and water is going to take huge steps backward. Ever been to that smog pit, Houston? Soon the rest of the country will be covered in a cloud just like that.
    We are now governed by the oil and gas and coal industries. (and Russia)
    And you have the naivete to talk about advance research and development, after voting against it.

  21. Michael Bailey says:

    @DrDaveT: Yes! Thank you! I’ll go fix it now.

  22. Michael Bailey says:

    @DrDaveT: I’m actually a market kind of guy, but I think that it’s acceptable in principle for the federal government to pursue research. I wish I had a simple formula to determine when such research is legitimate, but anything I’d come up with would finally be glib. All spending programs should be examined for their cost, effectiveness, and outcomes. So I’m not defending every program in the D. of Energy.

  23. Michael Bailey says:

    @Eric Florack: That wasn’t what I intended to convey. I’m not a libertarian, but I think the libertarian attitude of skepticism toward government spending is an important and useful one. WF Buckley called himself a “presumptive libertarian,” which, if I understand it, suggests that our default position ought to be that citizens should do Task X by themselves if they are capable of doing it. I agree. So I’m of the opinion that government spending ought to be scrutinized more closely than it is. All that being said, I’m in favor of more government spending than most libertarians prefer.

  24. grumpy realist says:

    @Tyrell: And do you buy those miraculous machines to run your car on water as well?

    Hint: anything that claims to operate a spaceship drive due to “the Casimir Effect” is going to be a fraud.

  25. Ben Wolf says:

    @Ben Wolf: Well, you can fire lots of people and create lots of unemployment. You can cut spending which puts you in recession and lots of people end up on welfare. You can outsource to contractors which spawns graft, waste and duplicates administrative bloat. You can try privatizing and commoditizing things which aren’t naturally given to such status and erect whole legal frameworks to force social acceptance.

    None of thise things would seem to resemble “shrinking government.”

  26. Eric Florack says:

    @Michael Bailey: I supposed to the working definition legitimate need… who gets to make that definition.

  27. Matt says:
  28. DrDaveT says:

    @Michael Bailey:

    I’m actually a market kind of guy, but I think that it’s acceptable in principle for the federal government to pursue research.

    It’s the principle that I’m after.

    I can find lots of libertarians who think that “less government always better” is a self-evident absolute. They are idiots, and can safely be ignored. It’s the ones who admit that some government is not only permissible, but a good idea, that I want to talk with. Someday one of them will confess the criteria by which they decide which government is better than none. At that point, we could actually have a substantive discussion…

  29. Eric Florack says:

    And where in the constitution is the Passage allowing for such research?

  30. Michael Bailey says:

    @DrDaveT: I’m skeptical that we’re going to find a principle grounded in natural rights theory or natural needs theory to guide decisions. I think people will have to continue to make sloppy utilitarian decisions. What I admire, however, is the spirit of innovation and scrutiny– a willingness to try sensible new approaches and the willingness to declare defeat. Neither attitude is as common as they should be. Cost-benefit analysis in simple economic terms is not the only approach, as there are more goods than wealth, but it’s a start. This is a pretty decent description of the problem:
    http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/07/can-government-play-moneyball/309389/

  31. Michael Bailey says:

    @Eric Florack:

    And where in the constitution is the Passage allowing for such research?

    Nowhere whatsoever if you’re looking for something literal, or if you’re defining federal powers narrowly. Which is an influential and valid way of interpreting the Constitution. It’s just not my approach.

    There are all sorts of things not literally in the Constitution that we consider to be part of our constitutional system:

    executive privilege
    executive powers
    congressional oversight
    executive capacity to fire executive officers
    separation of church and state
    innocent until proven guilty
    one vote per person
    Air Force. NASA. Nuclear energy, etc.

    and so on. I’m pretty Hamiltonian in how to interpret government powers. I mean…there was no explicit warrant for Jefferson to send out Lewis & Clark to do research on the new continent.

    There’s just a difficult, sloppy, political process that’s unavoidable in navigating between understanding the Constitution as designed to limit government–a fact I accept–and understanding the Constitution as designed to make a workable government and sustainable flourishing society. Sometimes these two understandings are in harmony, and sometimes they are not–and when push comes to shove I tend to interpret the former in light of the latter. I tend to interpret the enumerated powers of the Constitution as suggesting broad purposes. If I were forced to link research on alternative fuels to parts of the Constitution I’d probably do it by linking the commerce clause, the “To promote the Progress of Science” sub-clause (as stating a Constitutional aspiration), and the military clauses (taking a leaf from Eisenhower).

  32. Tyrell says:
  33. DrDaveT says:

    @Michael Bailey:

    I’m skeptical that we’re going to find a principle grounded in natural rights theory or natural needs theory to guide decisions.

    I’m glad to hear you say that, and I agree.

    I think people will have to continue to make sloppy utilitarian decisions.

    But utilitarian decisions require a scoring system, whereby some states of the world can be declared more useful than others. The thing I’ve never been able to extract from a Libertarian is what scoring system they use, once they’ve stopped insisting that the amount of government is the only metric of interest. I suspect that they realize that, once you’ve admitted your actual criteria for scoring social systems, there’s no longer any good reason to be a Libertarian, because it doesn’t score very well by those criteria.

  34. grumpy realist says:

    @Matt: May I point out that if you expect to get a spaceship off the Earth with a force measured in milli-Newtons you’re going to be waiting a VERY long time?

    At the moment, you have one report of something which may or may not exist. First of all, let’s see if the results are reproduced elsewhere by independent researchers. Remember cold fusion? Remember the reports we heard about neutrinos going faster than light?

    Rocket thrusts that get created by physics we don’t understand yet? Hmmm. I’ll wait.

  35. grumpy realist says:

    @Eric Florack: Let’s put in this way: a country that has a government which puts money into basic R&D is going to end up with its mitts on better science and technology than a government that doesn’t do anything and waits around twiddling its thumbs waiting for The Market to produce something. Why? For several reasons:

    1) you’re not going to get applied scientific stuff unless you have a basis of understanding the basic science behind it.

    2) There’s often a LOOOONG time-gap between when basic science is done and when it starts getting used. 50 years or more in some cases. But if you didn’t have the basic science hanging around, you wouldn’t be able to actually get the stuff done when opportunity arises. E.g. fuel cells, Riemannian geometry, quaternions.

    3. Having people tinkering with basic R&D means that you have a population of knowledgeable scientists available when you need to ramp up the application. And who knows what they might come up next? They also try stuff at universities and are one of the reasons you get spin-offs in the form of start-ups.

    4. If we don’t do the R&D, someone else will, and can potentially leap-frog us to the next dominant technology. You want to be the last country on the planet to understand how transistors work? Great, but expect said lag to be mirrored in your economic level. I’d prefer to try basing my economy on being at the forefront. It seems you want us to live off subsistence farming.

  36. Tyrell says:

    @grumpy realist: See “Car engine that gets 100 mpg – on gas vapors !”
    http://fuel-efficient-vehicles.org/energy-news/?p=1310

    There was also a famous NASCAR mechanic that took a Pontiac Firebird V6 and worked it to get 50 mpg. GM pulled the plug and kept the car, but he kept the engine !
    High mpg gasoline engines are not only possible, they have been built. But the oil/government complex ends up killing them.

  37. DrDaveT says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Let’s put in this way: a country that has a government which puts money into basic R&D is going to end up with its mitts on better science and technology than a government that doesn’t do anything and waits around twiddling its thumbs waiting for The Market to produce something.

    Now, there you go again, getting all pragmatic and empirical. Florack’s belief in the superiority of The Market is not subject to falsification — it’s a religious belief, not based on observation or even theory. Presumably, in Florackland we won WW2 without the OSS, Operations Research, or the Manhattan Project.

  38. Eric Florack says:

    @Michael Bailey: interesting that most of the things you listed as being accepted parts of the Constitution are in fact extra-constitutional.

  39. Eric Florack says:

    @DrDaveT: well it’s worked so well for the socialist countries this business of investing in R&D. Of course when I say socialist countries I am including Nazi Germany in that list.

    As for the remainder of your comments about being even absent a theory? Perhaps this is slipped your memory….

    It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

  40. al-Ameda says:

    @Eric Florack:

    Of course when I say socialist countries I am including Nazi Germany in that list.

    Of course you are

  41. Eric Florack says:

    @al-Ameda: it is unarguable that they were socialists.

  42. Michael Bailey says:

    @Eric Florack: @Eric Florack:

    interesting that most of the things you listed as being accepted parts of the Constitution are in fact extra-constitutional.

    Right. That’s my point. A lot of things are considered perfectly constitutional without being explicitly noted in the Constitution. In other words, I’m not immediately troubled by not finding something like “the federal government may research alternative fuels” or “the federal government may dispose of nuclear waste from its nuclear weapons programs” in Article I. Nor would I demand that the Constitution be first amended to allow the federal government to take on such responsibilities.

  43. Mr. Bluster says:

    Article I Section 8
    To establish post offices and post roads;

    To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries;

    I have always taken these paragraphs as solid Constitutional ground to land on the moon and travel to Mars and beyond.

  44. Mr. Bluster says:

    The Congress shall have the power to…

  45. grumpy realist says:

    @Mr. Bluster: Actually, the second part is the basis on which copyright and patent law have been based, not exploration.

    Unless we put a post office box on the Moon, maybe?

  46. Mr. Bluster says:

    Actually, the second part is the basis on which copyright and patent law have been based, not exploration.

    Tell me something I don’t know.
    Copyrights and patents do “promote the progress of science” which would include rocket science.

    Mars Post Office
    https://www.yelp.com/biz_photos/us-post-office-mars-2?select=pwI-XtAOjsd8rN9X1cmRAg