Texas Gov. Rick Perry continues to try to thrash his way into the consciousness of a once-enamored Republican primary electorate. At the foreign-policy debate in South Carolina on Saturday, he said he would zero out the foreign-aid budget of the United States and have countries come in and make their case. That goes for you, too, Israel! In Iowa yesterday, he unveiled a radical plan to “uproot” the federal government by turning Congress into a part-time legislature and slapping term limits on federal judges, including Supreme Court justices.
Great. Perry has everyone’s attention. Now what? Once the sugar high of the rhetoric wears off, you’re right to wonder how any of what he proposes will change things.
Let’s take foreign aid first. Sure, the United States is in a deep fiscal ditch. But zeroing a line item that accounts for about 1 percent of a $3.4 trillion budget is like ladling out a teaspoon of water from a capsizing ocean liner. In addition to lacking in budgetary sense, slashing foreign aid is stunningly short-sighted. This nation benefits enormously from the soft power exerted by those dollars overseas. Perry might get mad props for proposing such madness, but this is one promise he would never be able to keep, if by some stroke of magic he were to find himself sitting behind the desk in the Oval Office.
Now, about this “uprooting” of Washington. Perry complained Tuesday, “Congress is out of touch because congressmen are overpaid, overstaffed and away from home too much.” We can quibble over congressional staffing. But a $174,000 salary for members of Congress, given their responsibilities, doesn’t strike me as too much. What would make that salary seem worthwhile would be congressional leaders exercising their power to make tough decisions, instead of farming that responsibility out to supercommittees. Another thing that would make that tidy sum worthwhile would be if the House and Senate spent more time in Washington getting things done, rather than constantly going on recess. Every two weeks, it seems, the House or the Senate or both are out of session for one reason or another. The other benefit of hanging around town is that members might actually get to know each other and forge the bonds of trust that allow great policy to be made.
Now, for term limits for federal judges. “Too many [judges] rule with impunity from the bench,” Perry said Tuesday. “And those who legislate from the bench shouldn’t be entitled to a lifetime appointment to the judiciary.” Why is it always “legislating from the bench” when it’s a ruling conservatives don’t agree with?
Quite frankly, I’m having a hard time squaring this circle. Far-right folks, particularly Tea Partyers, have raised hell over what they see as President Obama “not following the Constitution” to expand the power of government. Now they’re expected to favor one of the branches of government trimming the constitutional powers of another? A powerful and independent judiciary is paramount to our system of government — conservatives are banking on the courts to overturn the Obama health care law they hate so much — and we tinker with it at our peril.
It’s not clear how Perry would follow through on this idea, whether by legislation or by constitutional amendment. But it isn’t so far-fetched “It’s not exactly an insane idea,” Harvard’s legendary constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe told me this afternoon. He talked about the valid concern of having judges in their 80s who might be out of step with current judicial culture, or out of it mentally. But he expressed other concerns about judicial term limits: the installation of a revolving door on the judiciary, akin to the one between Congress and K Street, and what that might mean for judicial independence. “Judges might be tempted to render rulings in favor of corporations or or other entities that they might hope will hire them,” Tribe cautioned.
Considering Perry’s precipitous drop in the polls, I probably shouldn’t worry too much about what he has to say. But since gimmicks, brain freezes and a lack of policy depth or knowledge of the basics are the wind beneath the GOP field’s wings, I have to take what he and the others say somewhat seriously.