Abolish This!

By Kennedy Maize

Washington, D.C., November 17, 2011 — Let’s stipulate: Texas Gov. Rick Perry is a doofus. I’ve elsewhere characterized him as “a stuffed shirt, in an empty suit, talkin’ through his hat.” I was being kind.

In his recent debate “Oops!” moment, Perry was able to name only two of the three federal cabinet-level agencies he would immediately abolish if he were to be elected president. Where I was brought up, 66% wasn’t a passing grade. Never mind, because I’d be surprised if Perry could name any of the statutory functions of the two agencies he was able to recall.

Suggesting abolishing the Commerce Department was a real gobsmacker for me. It’s the first time I’ve heard anyone question the very existence of this largely unknown agency. Can anyone out there name the current Secretary of Commerce? Okay, you energy mavens, it is former Edison International exec John Bryson. Does Perry really want to abolish the weather bureau? Do away with the decennial census? I don’t think so.

Perry also doesn’t seem to understand that the president doesn’t have the power to establish or abolish cabinet agencies. That’s a job for Congress, and provided for in the U.S. Constitution (Article 1, Section 8). Perry as president could huff and could puff, but he couldn’t blow those houses down.

But that minor stuff doesn’t matter when it comes to winning a party’s presidential nomination. Perry was pandering to the party base, a group predisposed to support all kinds of loony ideas with no basis in reality. The same is true among Democrats, but not on display this year, as President Obama has no visible opposition in his party. So Perry is free to engage in arrant nonsense, even if he doesn’t know he’s doing it.

More to the point, even a stopped clock is accurate twice a day (unless you are using that utterly foreign 24-hour timekeeping method favored by war mongers and metric system snobs).

And Perry is right – for all the wrong reasons – when it comes to the agency he wants to abolish whose name he couldn’t remember. It’s the…hum?…What was it, now?…Oh, yeah, the Department of Energy.

As one or two of my one or two readers may recollect, I’ve been advocating eliminating DOE for years. Indeed, back in 1976 and 1977, when I was still a young energy reporter, I thought creating it was a really bad idea. Still do.

But that’s not because I want to eliminate the tasks we, the people, have given to the agency to perform (well, not all of them). There was nothing much new in the new DOE, just a new recipe for old ingredients.

For the most part, DOE was created by a Democratic Congress and Jimmy Carter to show that the U.S. was every bit as trendy and with it as those snooty Euros during the first – of many – energy crises. We didn’t have an energy minister (and Jim Schlesinger sure wanted to be one). Voila, a bit of the Interior Department here, a soupcon of the National Science Foundation there, swirled in the stew of a concentrated reduction of the Atomic Energy Commission, layered on a foundation of atomic bombs. Behold: DOE. A pudding without a theme. A dog’s breakfast masquerading as a dog’s dinner.

Is the U.S. a stronger, kinder, and gentler nation because Congress created the Energy Department? I don’t think so.

Would the U.S. have a different, less coherent, less successful national energy policy if Congress had never created the Energy Department? Hardly.

Would the over-under on U.S. oil imports be any different today if there were no Department of Energy? The smart money is betting on a push.

But not having a Department of Energy might have saved some taxpayer dollars by subjecting feckless R&D spending – Solyndra, anyone? – to a more rigorous and less political review process. That’s something NSF did pretty well.

And avoiding service at the agency may have prevented damaging the reputations of some fine, public-spirited men and women who were tainted by their failures in an agency doomed to fail. The latest of those is likely to be Steven Chu, the most obvious target in the game of political Whac-a-Mole now underway in Washington in the Solyndra aftermath. I’d bet Chu wishes, deep in his heart, that he’d never heard of the U.S. Department of Energy.