Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Executive Supremacy

Though Rick Perry's plan to "reform" Washington has been getting a lot of press, I think there is something that should especially be emphasized about it, one that does not bode well for classical conservatism: Perry's plan seems a recipe for radically increasing the power of the executive branch. Here are some of the principles:
  • Ending the practice of giving lifetime appointments to federal judges (current judges would not be affected);
  • Cutting Congressional pay in half;
  • Cutting Congressional pay in half again if they don’t balance the budget by 2020;
  • Cutting Congressional office budgets in half;
  • Cutting the Congressional calendar by half;
  • Criminalizing insider trading by Congressmen;
  • Reducing spending to 18% of GDP;
  • Privatizing Fannie & Freddie;
  • Ending the funding of Planned Parenthood;
  • Eliminating the Commerce, Education, and Energy Departments;
  • Getting the EPA under control;
  • Getting the TSA under control;
  • Audit the government, including the Department of Defense;
  • Freeze incoming federal regulations, and audit all of them for the last five years;
  • Federal salary freeze for all non-military and non-law enforcement officials until the budget is balanced;
  • And cutting the Presidential salary in half until the budget is balanced
There's a lot here---some of it good, some of it not so good. Let's focus on Congress for the moment. One of the key levers of power for Roosevelt's New Deal and, more broadly, the modern presidency is its corps of bureaucrats and analysts; the Executive Office alone has at least 2000 or so staffers. The president has access to layers and layers of information. This access gives the president great influence in shaping the annual budget and the details of policy. Members of Congress may propose laws, but the substance of these laws often has considerable White House backing.

Congressional staff provide at least a partial check on the data power of the executive branch. By undermining Congressional staffs through salary cuts, one also undermines the ability of Congress to shape the information narrative and write legislation. Meanwhile, cutting Congressional pay might seem an invitation to more petty corruption.

One can say this about Rick Perry with some confidence: he knows how power works. As Governor of Texas, he has shown considerable skill in centralizing power through a cunning use of the appointment powers of the governor and through legislative maneuvering. He knows that power abhors a vacuum and that a diminution of Congress's power will give the president a further opportunity to exercise power. A few Cabinet departments may be eliminated under Perry's plan, but those agencies under the president's direct control will have plenty of room to grow.

Any talk of cutting government employment may elicit shouts of glee from many on the right. But conservatives need to ask themselves whether it advances the cause of smaller government to reform the federal government so that the centralized executive branch has even more power.

(Crossposted at FrumForum)

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