For Perry, Inconsistencies in States' Rights Mantra

Gov. Rick Perry campaigns at the Hamburg Inn restaurant in downtown Iowa City.
Gov. Rick Perry campaigns at the Hamburg Inn restaurant in downtown Iowa City.

As Gov. Rick Perry begins his presidential campaign, he is working hard to position himself as the leading Republican champion of states’ rights, using his high-profile battles with Washington and his book on the dangers of federal power to build an ideological and constitutional rationale for his fierce anti-Obama message.

From his lawsuits challenging federal health reform and environmental programs to his suggestions that Texans were so angry with Washington that they might consider secession, Perry has repeatedly invoked the 10th Amendment — reserving to the states the powers not explicitly given to the federal government.

Perry uses the issue of states’ rights to give his candidacy an overarching theme, tap into the frustrations that have fueled the Tea Party movement and highlight the substance behind his swaggering style. 

Though the governor has a claim to acting on these principles, he has come to publicly embrace states’ rights as a defining issue only in the past few years, a period when the 10th Amendment has been a rallying cry for many Tea Party supporters, libertarians and others who make up components of his party’s conservative base. And he has at times been inconsistent in applying those beliefs, drawing criticism from some states’ rights advocates and raising questions even among fellow Republicans about whether his stance is as much campaign positioning as a philosophical commitment.

In one of his more well-publicized shifts, Perry proclaimed that gay marriage was an issue for individual states to decide, but backtracked in recent weeks and now says he supports a federal amendment banning gay marriage. He has also signaled support for various federal actions to restrict abortion rather than leaving the issue to states. And he used $17 billion in federal stimulus money to balance the state’s last two budgets.

Despite his vocal opposition to what he has called “the unprecedented and massive federal overreach” of President Obama’s health care overhaul, Perry accepted a $1 million federal grant last October for planning to carry out one of its key provisions. (Other Republican governors, including Rick Scott of Florida, have refused to use the grants.)

Although his 2010 book Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America from Washington describes his outrage that federal bureaucrats distributed more than $245 billion in farm subsidies from 1995 to 2009, the governor received some of that money. Perry, a former West Texas cotton farmer, received at least $83,000 in federal farm subsidies between 1987 and 1998, during the time he was in elected office, according to his tax returns.

At the Republican Leadership Conference in June in New Orleans, Perry said that while government plays an important role in helping a city recover from a disaster, “the real recovery” stems from hard-working individuals. Unfortunately, he added, Obama believed that government was the answer to every need, a sign of the “arrogance and audacity” of the White House.

Three weeks earlier, in a letter to Obama, Perry struck a different tone as wildfires ravaged Texas. The Federal Emergency Management Agency had approved grants to reimburse some of the local and state costs of fighting the fires, but Perry was seeking the additional federal aid that comes from a presidential disaster declaration. “Your favorable consideration of this appeal would be greatly appreciated,” the governor wrote to the president, who ultimately granted Perry’s request.

Perry’s aides and supporters defend the governor’s record, praising him for taking bold stands to strengthen state autonomy and fight federal overregulation. In 2009, Perry rejected $556 million in federal stimulus dollars for the state’s unemployment insurance program, saying that the money came with too many strings attached that would require Texas to broaden its rules on who is eligible to receive benefits. Days before he announced his presidential candidacy, Perry formally requested that the federal government reimburse Texas $350 million — the estimated cost of incarcerating illegal immigrants in county jails and state prisons in 2009 and 2010.

When asked whether the governor saw any of these examples as inconsistent with his states’ rights stance, Perry’s spokesman, Mark Miner, said absolutely not. If anything, he said, Texas — a so-called donor state that pays more in federal taxes than it receives — has done more than its part, stepping in when the federal government has shirked its responsibilities. Texas has received between 72 cents and 98 cents from Washington for every dollar it paid in federal taxes over the last three decades, according to a 2005 analysis by the Tax Foundation, a conservative advocacy group.

“The governor is a strong advocate of the 10th Amendment, of giving more power to states to make decisions on these issues,” Miner said. “Whether it’s transportation or border security, which are federal issues, the state of Texas has had to step up to the plate where the federal government has failed at its responsibilities.”

Perry began embracing states’ rights as a major part of his public political persona after Obama was elected president. It was a time when issues like government bailouts and the federal debt made the concept resonate among conservatives nationwide and helped fuel the rise of the Tea Party movement.

Bill Ratliff, a Republican who served alongside Perry as lieutenant governor from late 2000 to early 2003, said that states’ rights were not a priority for Perry in those years.

“He probably always had a level of skepticism about federal intervention and federal programs, but then when the Tea Party movement began, he sensed that this was going to be the place where he could participate,” said Ratliff, 75, now a lobbyist for public education. “I think he’s the best I’ve ever seen at picking up on a trend, a movement, and getting out in front of it very early.”

Miner said in a statement that as the governor served in elected office, “his eyes were opened to the problems perpetuated by massive, one-size-fits-all federal programs,” adding that his experience as a state leader “convinced him of how important it is to fight for a government that is as close to the people as possible.”

Critics say that there are inconsistencies between Perry’s message and his record and that this has eroded his support among some of those in Texas who share the same limited-government beliefs, including libertarians, moderate Republicans and Tea Party activists. “What he says in the book and what he does are not the same,” said Dave Nalle, national chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus, a group of libertarian Republicans whose Texas chapter has never endorsed Perry for governor. “He’s a good salesman, no question about it. But he’s selling something that’s mostly a fiction, I think.”

But even as some conservatives say he does not go far enough in adhering to a states’ rights philosophy, Democrats are already using his stated positions to portray him as an extremist who would gut popular government functions like Social Security and Medicare.

Perry has described the defense of the 10th Amendment as the battle for the soul of America. In his book, he called Social Security a failure that was “set up like an illegal Ponzi scheme” and described Congress as “arguably one of the most incompetent regimes with one of the worst track records of mismanagement in the history of mankind.” In two separate statements in 2009, he suggested that frustrated Texans might consider secession.

“We’ve got a great union,” Perry said at a Tea Party rally in Austin in April 2009. “There’s absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that.”

In his book, he sets out a view that the founders intended a federal system that allowed “people of like mind” in the states to make their own decisions about how to live, while the national government’s role was properly focused on national security. “From marriage to prayer, from zoning laws to tax policy, from our school systems to health care, and everything in between,” he wrote, “it is essential to our liberty that we be allowed to live as we see fit through the democratic process at the local and state level.”

The history of Perry’s anti-Washington beliefs is complicated by the fact that over much of his time in office during the last decade he had little interest in publicly challenging his predecessor as governor, President George W. Bush, alongside whom Perry served as lieutenant governor. Bush oversaw a substantial increase in the size and scope of the federal government, both in post-9/11 security programs and in social programs like the creation of a prescription drug benefit for Medicare.

Though in his book he criticizes Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act and suggests it is unconstitutional, Perry accepted financing for the education program as governor. This fiscal year, Texas received $2.03 billion in No Child Left Behind financing. 

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