Rick Perry’s radical, EU-style federalism
By Ezra Klein,
You wouldn’t think that the governor of Texas, the most conservative of the viable candidates in the Republican presidential field, would want to make the United States more like Europe. Unless, of course, you have read Rick Perry’s book.
“Fed Up,” Perry’s 2010 cri de coeur (yes, that’s French), can be summed up in one sentence: The federal government is unconstitutional. Not all of it, of course, just most of it. In particular, the parts that include Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, education policy, banking regulations, environmental protection, gun control and a few other things I’m doubtlessly forgetting. And he doesn’t mince words on the subject. Social Security, Perry writes, is an example of the federal government’s “violently tossing aside any respect for our founding principles of federalism and limited government.”
Perry doesn’t just want to roll back regulations. He wants to make it impossible for them to exist in the first place. His book argues that the Supreme Court has gone way too far in empowering the federal government. In particular, the court has interpreted the Commerce Clause and spending power too broadly and the 10th Amendment powers reserved to the states too narrowly.
Would reversing the relevant court decisions undermine popular sovereignty and roll back much of 20th-century jurisprudence and the society on which it is based? Sure. But that, Perry says, is what fealty to the Constitution demands. “Few people have the discipline to restrain themselves,” he writes, “but politicians have a particular lust for power.” (Perry, presumably, is exempt from this temptation.)
Even as president, Perry wouldn’t be able to reinterpret the Constitution all by his lonesome. But a Perry presidency would probably see at least a few Supreme Court vacancies. Given enough turnover, we could end up with a high court that takes a surprising, new approach to the Constitution.
What’s perhaps most interesting about Perry’s take is that he’s not quite willing to abandon the government’s core commitments. When questioned, he doesn’t argue that pensions and health care are none of the government’s business. Instead, he suggests that we let “the states keep their money and implement the programs.” So Perry’s world is not a libertarian dreamscape devoid of Social Security or bank regulation. It’s a world in which public pension systems and bank regulation vary state by state. It’s a world, in other words, that looks less like the United States of America and a whole lot more like the European Union.
There would be differences, of course. We share a language. Europe doesn’t. We share an established currency, backed by an effective central banking system (at least as long as President Perry doesn’t do something “ugly” to the chairman of the Federal Reserve). The euro is obviously a newer innovation, and the European Central Bank is having some trouble getting its sea legs.
But under Perry’s vision of the United States, we would be in much the same place that Europe is now — trying to navigate a complex, interconnected and international economy with new, untested institutions governing our internal relationships. And we would be moving in the wrong direction.
The European Union, for all its difficulties, is an admission by its member countries that integration and, to some degree, centralization serve their purposes in the 21st century. Their closely knit economies are getting more connected instead of less, and they need a system of governance to match those realities. They’re not having an easy time of it, as we have seen. But the reason they’re sticking with such a challenging project is that moving backward, toward greater independence, no longer seems workable.
Throughout the current crisis, the speed with which the U.S. government and the Fed have acted to put out economic fires has been a source of economic strength. It’s one reason investors keep rushing into Treasury bonds. Similarly, federal power has been essential in helping individual states stay afloat. Perry would trade all that for a philosophy that offers ideological purity but little demonstrated capacity to meet the demands and withstand the pressures of the global economy.
To take just one example, we still haven’t emerged from a financial crisis caused, in part, by banks’ ability to slip between the cracks of the federal and international regulatory system. Now we’re going to break the federal system and give banks 50 new cracks to slip through?
Ultimately, what Perry is offering is a kind of buck passing. Rather than proposing solutions to our pressing national problems, he’s offering to pass the problem to someone else: in most cases, the states, and in some cases, the courts. Saying “I’ll let the states figure out how to handle Medicare” is really just a way of saying he’ll make Medicare somebody else’s problem. That may be consistent with Perry’s philosophy, and his understanding of the Constitution. But the only problem it solves is his.