I’m still digesting Rick Perry’s plan to uproot and overhaul Washington. There’s just a lot to take in.
There’s been some good writing around the blogsphere already on the congressional side of things — Jamelle Bouie and Jonathan Bernstein and Matt Yglesias addressed many of the fundamental problems with populist downsizing and amatuerization of legislatures; Kevin Collins pointed out that de-professionalization would probably reduce congressional responsiveness to voters and cited some political science on the topic; and I made a small empirical point about congressional salary.
One thing that hasn’t been voiced so far is the whiggish response to Perry’s plan, and I just can’t let this pass. If you look at the document from a holistic point of view and strip away all the policy-side stuff, it boils down to a pretty strong attack on the legislative and judicial branches, while leaving the Presidency largely intact, or in some cases enhancing its power.
Start with the judiciary: Perry’s plan it to pass a constitutional amendment ending life tenure for federal judges, replacing it with fixed terms. But unless judges are not allowed to be reappointed — and that would be insane in the lower federal courts — the obvious results would be a politicization of the courts and significant political leverage for the president (and, to a lesser degree, Congress) over the judiciary. You think the court decisions are political now? Just wait!
But the courts aren’t the most egregious issue; the real problem is that Perry’s plan would strip Congress of its political resources but do nothing to reduce the resources of the President. Yesterday, many of the commentators focused on how reducing the staff and deprofessionalizing the legislature would empower interest groups: Members need to get information about legislation and oversight from somewhere, and if they do not have the resource capacity to gather it themselves, they will turn to other places, like leadership and interest groups. If congressional staff are cut, interest groups (and leadership) would gain an informational advantage, and thus increase their power over legislation.
But the President would also gain a massive informational advantage. Right now, the president gets just north of $800 million annually to fund the Executive Office of the President, which employs over 1800 people and exists to provide the president with a myriad of staff support: it includes OMB, the National Security Council, the Council of Economic Advisers, the direct White House staff, and other offices. There’s not a word in Perry’s plan about cutting the EOP.
And the end result of cutting congressional staff but not EOP staff would be to politically advantage the president in any legislative dispute that required research, analysis, or public persuasion. Which is, to say, all of them. This isn’t fantasy: one of the reasons the Congressional Budget Office was created in the 70’s was because Congress did not have their own independent source of budgeting and economic numbers; they had to rely on OMB, which was perceived to have a bias toward the president’s positions. Not only can you not make informed decisions without resources, you also can’t effectively take part in a public debate.
This is not to say that my solution would be to cut the EOP. Far from it. And this raises the main blindspot of Perry’s plan: part of the reason the number of staffers in Washington has grown is because the complexity of issues facing the nation has grown. It’s not 1915 — the president cannot survive on a dozen or so White House staffers, and individual Members of Congress cannot make optimally-informed decisions without significant staff research and analysis. Maybe Perry has read the Brownlow Commission report from 1937 but is taking its core message — The President needs help — a little too literally. Everyone needs help in the modern environment.
And look, I’m a libertarian. My personal preference would probably be for a somewhat smaller federal government. But even a small federal government — which is clearly what Perry wants — needs informed policymakers. But that’s really besides the point, because the fundamental issue is how all the Washington staff affect the government. This is another blind spot of Perry’s; he seems to think that because the growth of Washington followed the growth of government, you can somehow shrink the government by shrinking the Washington establishment. I don’t buy it. Shrinking the political apparatus in Washington will certainly produce a different government, but I doubt it would be a smaller one, and I’m quite certain it won’t be a better one.
But let’s move on. Perry does propose some reforms for the executive branch, none of which seem to affect the power of the president very much. He wants a freeze on federal regulations, followed by an OMB review of existing regulations promulgated since 2008. This could mostly be done by executive order (I think) and, of course, he notes that “common-sense exceptions” would be made by the President. He proposes that FOIA be applied to both the legislative branch as well as the White House, but my impression is that the president could always fall back on some variation of the constitutional executive privilege doctrine or a national-security FOIA exemption to avoid application.
Next, Perry proposes that the annual congressional budget resolution become statutory, which could in theory create stronger spending caps, but definitely brings the president into the equation. This is odd given that (a) the President already submits his own complete budget as Congress requires under law, and (b) he can already veto appropriations bills. But leave that aside. Suggesting that Congress should modify a process that is designed to regulate the inner-workings of the legislative appropriations process so that the president can become a veto player is, well, it’s just out of line. It’s like Congress asking the President to submit to Senate approval for presidential pardons.
Finally, I want to say a word about oversight. Perry seems to take the view that congressional staff serve two main functions: helping constituents and getting in the way of Members’ direct control over legislation. Not surprisingly, he leaves out one of the most important functions of congressional committee staff: oversight of the executive branch. Whether you think Congress is doing a good job or a terrible job of oversight in the modern era, it’s pretty obvious that reducing the number of staff will not help improve it. And the crazy thing is that congressional oversight of the executive branch is a core conservative concern; if Congress does not have the tools to properly evaluate bureaucratic effectiveness and uncover problems, then popular control over government is reduced. And, more importantly, political power is further concentrated into the presidency.
I don’t want to make too big a deal about all of this stuff; it’s unlikely Perry is going to be President, and even if he was, it’s unlikely many of these reforms would be put into place. But I also believe that ideas matter, and anyone who believes in the power of Congress and worries about the expansion of the power of the president should not sit by and watch when presidential candidates propose things that, whether intended or not, are quite obviously consequential power plays in favor of the executive over the legislature.