One thing lost in much of the clamor around Gov. Rick Perry's debate stumble last week is that he's calling for the elimination of three federal agencies. The fate of similar attempts in the past points to the small likelihood of changes now.
When Ronald Reagan ran for president in 1980, he promised to eliminate the newly created U.S. Department of Education. And yet the Great Communicator couldn’t get it done.
Audio: Ben Philpott's story for KUT News
Sean Theriault, an associate professor in the Department of Government at the University of Texas, said a president can push an idea but that Congress has to pass it.
"It only takes 40 votes to hold something up in the Senate,” Theriault said. “So presidents and candidates always talk about how they want to rearrange the bureaucracy. But, of course, any type of rearrangement has to go through Congress. And as soon as it has to go through Congress, it becomes much more difficult for that to be accomplished."
Every time an agency is created, Congress creates an oversight committee. Committee chairs and ranking members draw their power from overseeing that agency. And those members draw a good amount of clout from those positions.
“So it’s not simply a matter of saying, we’re going to push back on the teachers union,” said Ed Dorn, a former dean of the LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT. “It is also a matter of asking members of Congress to surrender some of their power and oversight responsibilities. That can be very difficult to do.”
Not that elimination can’t happen. Agencies that have outlived their usefulness or political support can end up on the chopping block.
"Maybe the best example of that would be the old Office of Economic Opportunity and the Model Cities Program, which was eliminated several decades ago,” Dorn said. “Usually that's done by starving rather than by legislation. That is, Congress simply fails to pass the legislation or the appropriation needed to keep them going."
Even if Perry as president could get his elimination agenda through Congress, Dorn said, it would likely end up a reorganization agenda.
"So, for example, when you say you're going to eliminate the Department of Commerce, are you really saying we're no longer going to conduct the census?” he said. “Well, that's a silly thing to say, because the census is required by the U.S. Constitution. If you say you're going to eliminate the Department of Energy, you have to figure out what you are going to do with the essential functions that still have to be performed."
Perry has said other agencies can handle essential functions of the targeted departments, but he hasn’t given specifics. For now, the call to eliminate and, where possible, send the duties back to the states is a strong-enough campaign message.