The iconic moment of former Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s ill-fated 2012 presidential run came when he struggled during a debate to rattle off the names of three federal agencies he had vowed to eliminate — uttering an infamously painful “oops” instead of naming the Department of Energy.
In an ironic twist, President-elect Donald Trump announced on Wednesday that Perry was his pick to lead that very agency, which handles energy research and policy as well as the nation’s nuclear weapons program.
Once Perry has the reins, will he try to slim down — or even get rid of entirely — the agency he once vowed to eliminate?
If so, he faces a rough road ahead. Significant reform of federal agencies is difficult and has few precedents. Former President Ronald Reagan, who vowed to shut down the Department of Education and the Department of Energy, famously complained that “a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.”
Reagan dutifully appointed people to lead both of his least favorite agencies, and he did not succeed in shutting them down or even significantly shrinking them.
“He always respected the men who he put there; he just didn’t respect the agencies,” said Craig Shirley, a historian who has written several books about Reagan. “They either cut spending or at least they toed the line on spending.”
“Eliminating a federal agency is almost impossible,” Shirley added.
President Jimmy Carter created the Department of Energy in 1977 during the oil crisis, but its major responsibility is the country’s nuclear weapons stockpile. The agency spends about $30 billion per year — with $18.4 billion of that going to the U.S. nuclear weapons program, including maintaining, securing and designing the nukes. Another $10 billion goes to energy and physical sciences research. The current leader of the agency, Ernest Moniz, is a nuclear physicist.
It’s unclear what Perry planned to do with the nuclear weapons under his 2012 proposal to shut down the agency. Some have suggested that the military could take charge of the program, but having them in the hands of a civilian agency is seen as a crucial check on the military’s power. In a statement about his selection, Perry said he looked forward to “engaging in a conversation” about “the development, stewardship and regulation of our energy resources, safeguarding our nuclear arsenal, and promoting an American energy policy that creates jobs and puts America first.”
Avik Roy, a policy adviser to Perry in his unsuccessful 2016 presidential campaign, said he believes that Perry may focus less on slimming down or shutting down the agency and more on limiting the scope of its powers.
“Generally speaking, conservatives believe agencies should be slimmer, but it’s not really about the personnel, it’s about what powers these agencies have been assigned by Congress,” Roy said. “If you really want to reform agencies, you can slim down the staff, but if the agency has certain responsibilities invested by Congress — that’s why you have staff.”
James Burnley, the secretary of transportation under Reagan, agreed that any administration has relatively little power to change a federal agency on its own. “You’ve got a lot of power in the executive branch, but when it comes to the basic structure of the federal government, Congress does really have the whip hand.”
Reagan was able to shrink the size of a small agency in 1981, when Congress agreed to reduce appropriations for parts of the Action Agency, an umbrella agency for volunteer programs such as the Peace Corps. Years later, the agency was eliminated.
Roy predicted that Perry will be a noninterventionist leader, reluctant to intrude on private energy exploration and vigilant in trying to ensure that the department isn’t having negative affects on the economy.
On Wednesday, a Trump transition official said the questionnaire was not sanctioned. “The questionnaire was not authorized or part of our standard protocol. The person who sent it has been properly counseled,” the official told Yahoo News.