By William McGurn,
from The Wall Street Journal,
Hurrah for cabinet secretaries skeptical about the agencies they will lead.
Among Democrats, the only question about Donald Trump’s cabinet picks appears to be whether these people are merely unqualified for their jobs—or uniquely unqualified.
“In my mind she is the least qualified nominee in a historically unqualified cabinet.” So spoke Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer about Betsy DeVos, who was nonetheless confirmed last Tuesday as education secretary. Somewhat more modestly Sen. Patty Murray (D., Wash.) contented herself with “uniquely unqualified” to describe Andrew Puzder, the labor secretary nominee whose confirmation hearings the Senate is scheduled to take up later this week.
Not surprisingly, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi went much further on Ben Carson, declaring the neurosurgeon-turned-secretary of housing and urban development “disconcerting and disturbingly unqualified.” In the same vein New York’s Democratic attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, attacked Scott Pruitt, Mr. Trump’s nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, as “a dangerous and unqualified choice.” Rick Perry got off relatively lightly when Sen. Martin Heinrich (D., N.M.) limited himself to “utterly unqualified” to describe Mr. Trump’s pick for energy secretary.
So what is it about these Trump nominees that makes them so distinctive and unqualified? National Public Radio comes closer to the truth than Mr. Schumer: It’s because many of these cabinet secretaries are thought to “oppose the work of the very agencies they’ve been tapped to lead.”
For some of us, that’s the most encouraging thing about them. True, only Mr. Perry has publicly called for the abolition of the cabinet agency he’s now been asked to lead, and that was years ago. It’s also true that in his confirmation hearing last month Mr. Perry pulled a Henry IV (the French Protestant king who converted to Catholicism to solidify his hold on the throne). If Henry thought Paris well worth a Mass, the former Texas governor has obviously concluded that a cabinet post is worth a public recantation of his previous call to eliminate it.
Here’s hoping some of the old Mr. Perry remains in his unconverted heart. No one denies that the Energy Department has important responsibilities—primarily over our nuclear weapons. Even so, the question almost never asked is this: Does America need an entire cabinet agency for the job, and are we getting the proper bang for our taxpayer buck?
It’s a timely question, in a day when most federal cabinet agencies spend and regulate in ways fundamentally at odds with free people acting through their elected representatives. Then again, many of these agencies were designed this way, especially the more recent additions.
It helps to remember that the Environmental Protection Agency began life as Richard Nixon’s attempt to buy favor with the left. In a similar way, the Education Department was Jimmy Carter’s sop to the National Education Association (even the New York Times editorialized against its establishment as “unwise”). Labor began as part of the U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor in 1903 but 10 years later morphed into a separate department. Which illustrates another lamentable fact of cabinet agencies: Far from dying off, they often subdivide into more agencies that each become bigger than the parent.
Competence is not a requirement. One small example from the Education Department: a just-released federal analysis of a signature Obama initiative to improve failing public schools reports almost zero gain from the $7 billion spent. Yet we’re to believe that Mrs. DeVos is the unqualified one here?
Ditto the EPA. For Democrats today’s EPA is less a government bureau than a secular church enforcing the dogmas of climate change. Over the Obama years, this took the form of trying to kill off the coal industry, as well as to assert federal control at the expense of the states. Enter Mr. Pruitt, who as attorney general for Oklahoma tussled in court with the EPA. The fierce opposition to Mr. Pruitt speaks to the progressive fear that he might help restore not only science to its rightful place but federalism.
In George Washington’s day, the president got by with four cabinet members: secretary of state, secretary of the Treasury, secretary of war and attorney general. Their posts reflect the core functions of the federal government. Today there are 15 separate departments in the cabinet, along with agencies like the EPA, which chug along merrily in Republican as well as Democratic administrations because, once established, they almost never have to justify their existence.
Even with the best of reforms the United States will never again see a cabinet as pared down as Washington’s. But for believers in limited government, the most refreshing aspect of the Trump cabinet is that he’s included men and women whose primary qualification is a willingness to question whether we really need the federal behemoths they have been asked to lead.
More From The Wall Street Journal (subscription required):