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Let’s Get Real, No One’s Eliminating Any Cabinet Departments

Rick Perry’s “Oops” on Wednesday joined the small canon of legendary phrases from presidential debates, right up there with “You’re no Jack Kennedy.” His inability to remember one of the three government agencies he would promise to eliminate as president, together with his smirking indifference to whether it even mattered, was probably the final moment of a candidacy that was already doomed by his lack of preparation for the national stage.

But does it matter? Would it have made any difference if Perry had been able to smoothly reel off the names of three agencies, as Newt Gingrich certainly could, and then pad his answer out with some erudite-sounding pabulum about how we need a leaner 21st-century government for the new challenges of a globalized world?

In a way, Perry’s flub, and subsequent smirk, was the most honest moment yet in the long march of Republican debates. Perry couldn’t remember the agencies he would eliminate because he wouldn’t actually eliminate any. And neither would President Newt Gingrich or President Mitt Romney. (Ron Paul probably would.) Promising to eliminate cabinet departments is simply a pro forma requirement of Republican rhetoric. It has been for decades. Perry’s indifference to the substance of the promise seemed to admit, “We all know this is just something I’m supposed to say.”

How do I know that Gingrich or Romney wouldn’t eliminate any cabinet departments or major agencies either? Because Gingrich, for one, had his chance. Full of bluster in 1995, he promised to eliminate up to four cabinet agencies, starting with the Department of Education. I was working on the Hill at the time, and I remember seriously expecting a fight over eliminating at least one department, as well as an expectation that President Clinton would have to offer up one cabinet agency as a sacrifice to the god of triangulation. Older colleagues were more cynical, and I should have listened to them—the promise was quickly forgotten.

Ronald Reagan had made the same promise, focusing on the Department of Education, which had been created less than a year earlier and was seen as a Democratic gesture to the teachers’ unions. Even though the department had far less to do at that time, Reagan didn’t do much to keep his promise either, and later became a strong advocate of a federal role in K-12 education.

Promising to eliminate cabinet departments or agencies is downsizing government on the cheap. To conservative base voters it sounds like a big deal—eliminating three out of fifteen cabinet departments, and all their functions, would have to be a major cut in the size of government. But are the candidates promising to eliminate the functions of those agencies? Of course not. The Commerce Department carries out the census, which is required by the Constitution, and only Michelle Bachmann is actually anti-census. Nor have the candidates identified other functions within Commerce that they would cut. (The libertarian CATO Institute, to its credit, has proposed that eight small Commerce Department programs be offered up for total elimination, saving a total of $2 billion, or 12 percent of the Department’s total budget.) The Education Department administers student loans and Pell Grants, as well as federal aid to local school systems. Have the candidates, other than Ron Paul, proposed to eliminate these functions?

For policy wonks, eliminating the Department of Commerce, for example, makes a lot of sense. It’s too small, its functions don’t fit together naturally, and a few of them should be eliminated. Same with the Department of Energy. There’s a strong case to be made that the biggest program within its domain, the nuclear weapons complex, belongs in the Department of Defense, and its other programs could be reallocated as well. The Energy Department was obviously created as a political gesture to show that government cared about the energy crisis of the 1970s, and the most recently created agency, the Department of Homeland Security, was similarly a gesture to the worries of the moment, in 2002. It’s probably too big and cumbersome as well, with some functions that had been better off within the Justice or State Departments.

But reorganizing those agencies wouldn’t have much impact on the actual size or cost of government. The Republican candidates want voters to hear “eliminate programs” when all they really mean is, maybe, rearrange some functions. And they probably don’t mean even that. Reorganizing the functions of government is time-consuming work that requires patience, a willingness to expend political capital, and an actual interest in making government work better. That’s the very opposite of the Republicans’ “say anything” brand of politics.

Instead of asking candidates which cabinet agencies they would eliminate, the debate moderators should be asking the candidates to name the major things that government does that it should stop doing, completely. Converting programs to block grants doesn’t count as an answer. Neither does “collecting taxes.” If the question was asked that way, every one of the candidates, with the possible exceptions of Ron Paul and Gary Johnson, would quickly become as forgetful as Rick Perry.

Mark Schmitt is a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and former editor of The American Prospect.