The purpose of Senate confirmation hearings should be to ensure that nominees are qualified and will faithfully serve the public. But in practice, senators press their parochial concerns and browbeat nominees to fall into line. They use the hearings to squelch any reform impulses that nominees may have.
That is how Thursday’s confirmation hearing for Rick Perry played out in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Members pushed the former Texas governor to renounce any effort to cut anything at the Department of Energy (DOE) if he is confirmed as secretary.
In a 2012 Republican presidential debate, the DOE was one of three departments that Perry proposed abolishing. But in his opening statement Thursday, Perry said:
“My past statements made over five years ago about abolishing the Department of Energy do not reflect my current thinking. In fact, after being briefed on so many of the vital functions of the Department of Energy, I regret recommending its elimination.
"If confirmed, I will enter this role excited and passionate about advocating and advancing the core missions of the DOE.”
The balance of the hearing confirmed Perry’s conversion from fiscal conservative to big government advocate. As each senator quizzed Perry about DOE programs and projects that they favor, Perry appeared to support them all.
Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) asked, “Do you plan to protect the science research at DOE related to climate.” Perry said, “I’m going to protect all of the science, whether it’s related to the climate or to the other aspects of what we’re going to be doing.”
Senator Bill Cassidy (R-La.) asked about a $2 billion federal loan guarantee to the Lake Charles Methanol Plant in his state, which Obama’s DOE handed out last month. Perry said:
“I don’t know the deep particulars of this … but it appears to make sense. Your observation that if it is supported by both sides of the aisle would make that a relatively easy decision to continue to go forward with it.”
Senator Angus King (I-Maine) expressed outrage that the Trump team would propose cutting anything at DOE. That would be “nuts” he said. Perry appeared to agree with King, and assured him that he had a record of “defending budgets.”
Senator Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) said, “This morning we learned that the Trump transition team intends to propose eliminating the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and the Office of Electricity ... scrap the Office of Fossil Energy … and make massive cuts to your department. … My question to you is do you support these cuts?”
“Maybe they’ll have the same experience I had and forget that they said that.”
That is, Perry wants Trump advisors to reverse themselves, like he did on his pledge to abolish the department.
Apparently, Rick Perry does not want to cut anything at DOE. That is a strange position given that President Trump comes into office having promised to cut wasteful spending and tackle the government’s huge debt. How can Trump cut spending if his cabinet secretaries — from Day One — focus only on defending their turf?
DOE spends more than $4 billion a year on subsidies for conventional and renewable energy. Those subsidies have been scandal-plagued for decades, as discussed in a new Cato Institute study. And they led to the cronyism that Republicans frequently lambasted in Obama’s DOE.
So it is pathetic that the incoming Republican Energy Secretary is a defender and advocate of spending, rather than a reformer who will pursue cuts and savings.