Politics

Cabinet Departments Trump Could Zap

President-elect taps Rick Perry to helm Energy Department he once said should be abolished

The choice of Texas Gov. Rick Perry to head the U.S. Department of Energy is noteworthy not because he becomes the first Republican to head a Cabinet department he once called to abolish.

It is noteworthy because he will become the second Republican in recent history to hold an office after once calling for its abolition. In both cases, it was the Department of Energy.

“There never was any constitutional basis for the federal government to play any role in education.”

The first Republican appointee to slam his own department was Spencer Abraham, the former U.S. senator from Michigan. After losing re-election in 2000, Abraham was appointed by President George W. Bush to be energy secretary.

Abraham served in the role from 2001 to 2004.

It’s a reminder that Republicans often talk a good game on cutting the budget and reducing bureaucracy, but it’s harder to deliver. And like Perry forgetting what agencies he would cut at the 2012 Republican presidential debate, Republicans often forget past promises.

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Many Republicans have mused openly about abolishing the Commerce, Education, and Energy departments. The plan would be to roll good programs (such as student grants and statistical agencies) within those departments into other Cabinet-level departments. Such a move would also help the White House and Congress spot expensive programs that perhaps could be cut or abolished.

George Leef, the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, says the Department of Education should be in the running to be cut, especially since states and localities do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to K-12 education.

By keeping the Education Department in the Cabinet, federal bureaucrats have incentive to interfere even in mundane matters such as discipline.

“There never was any constitutional basis for the federal government to play any role in education,” says Leef. “Even if that weren’t true, there is simply nothing that the federal government can do to improve education at any level and much of what the Education Department does is counterproductive, such as its mandate that schools have racially proportionate discipline numbers.”

In Betsy DeVos, Trump’s pick for education secretary, Leef probably has an ideological ally. But will she and Trump actually propose moving the department into other Cabinet agencies?

Not likely. And it’s not incompetence, malice, or a hidden agenda that likely blocks the Republicans. It’s the sheer size and unpleasantness of cutting federal jobs and programs within a $4 trillion annual federal budget. Cutting bureaucracies brings complaints from Democrats, liberals, unions, colleges and universities, the business sector, and special interests.

Those excuses are wearing thin, though. The federal budget has been growing steadily since the 1970s. When President Reagan took office, the national debt was approaching $1 trillion.

And despite saying he would cut the budget, Reagan had two bigger agenda items. One was tax cuts. The other was defense. Since the mid-1970s, every president has had to cancel budget and debt reduction to pursue larger goals.

At only one time since 1969 did the federal government run a surplus, and that was during the Dot-Com boom of the late 1990s. Still, the national debt kept slowly increasing. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and two recessions in the 2000s, the debt returned as a major, perhaps even dangerous, issue.

The debt now stands at $19.9 trillion, with $14.4 trillion of that held by the public, and the rest held by the U.S. government in debt owed to trust funds such as Social Security.

From time to time, Republicans debating how to finally get the federal government on a sustainable track have suggested that long-term spending reductions begin with reducing the bureaucracy. And from time to time, Democratic and Republican presidents commission studies to see what can be done to eliminate waste.

In 1982, President Reagan authorized the Grace Commission, which found massive waste. In 2010, President Obama authorized the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (better known as Simpson-Bowles), which Obama then promptly archived.

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Many of the commissions had good ideas, such as tax simplification. Yet that’s been a struggle. Eliminating a Cabinet department may be a tougher battle.

The three Cabinet departments of Commerce, Education, and Energy have long been seen as not rising to the level of having their own Cabinet secretaries. They spend, combined, a total of about $115 billion a year.

Not surprisingly, a Democratic president and Congress created two of the Cabinet agencies in the late 1970s.

While Commerce has been around since the beginning of the 20th century, President Jimmy Carter helped create the Department of Energy in 1977, bringing together various energy-related agencies.

The more recent Cabinet department, however, is the Department of Education. It wasn’t even created until 1979 and did not begin operating until 1980. It is relatively small, with 4,400 employees and a budget of $68 billion.

Critics say most of the good programs within Education can be moved back to the Department of Health and Human Services, which was known as the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare from 1953 to 1979.

meet the author

Political reporter, LifeZette. Indiana University journalism grad. Boston U. business grad. Former Indiana, Alabama statehouse reporter, Daytona Beach editorial writer.

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