Former Texas Governor Rick Perry was a decidedly bizarre choice to be Donald Trump's Energy Secretary, based on Perry's past statements denying climate change and calling for the Energy Department itself to be abolished. Democrats at his confirmation hearing made sure to press him on his claimed change of heart about the necessity of the Energy Department, and also on his readiness to challenge Trump's likely devastating cuts to its budget.
When Donald Trump announced former Texas Governor Rick Perry as his nominee to run the Department of Energy, it was a baffling choice. One of Perry's most infamous moments on the national stage, during a Republican primary debate in 2011, was when he attempted to list three departments he would eliminate if he became President — one of which, the one he momentarily forgot and which inspired the "Oops" utterance, was the Energy department.
Put alongside his dearth of qualifications and his past climate change denialism, this pick is just as absurd and worrying as many others Trump has made.
Perry himself is at least cognizant of some of this dissonance, and took the initiative to address what he said is his "current thinking" about the department in his opening statement at his confirmation hearing on Thursday.
If confirmed, my desire is to lead this agency in a thoughtful manner, surrounding myself with expertise on the core functions of the department. 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 advancing the core missions of the DOE, and drawing greater attention to the vital role played by the agency and the hard working men and women who dedicate themselves in pursuit of these missions.
Perry also declared a change in view on the subject of climate change, saying "I believe the climate is changing. I believe some of it is naturally occurring, but some of it is caused by man-made activity. The question is how we address it in a thoughtful way, that doesn't compromise economic growth, the affordability of energy, or American jobs." Though when Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) pressed him on the subject, Perry avoided giving a more definitive answer.
“I’m asking you if you agree with the scientific community that climate change is a crisis and that we need to transform our energy system to protect future generations,” Sanders said, sounding frustrated.
“Senator, I will respond that I think that having an academic discussion, whether it’s with scientists or whether it’s with you, it’s an interesting exercise,” Perry said. “But I do have a record of affecting the climate in the world and in this country.”
Texas slashed greenhouse gas emissions from carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide during his 14-year tenure as governor, Perry said. “Do you think that’s a good thing?” he asked Sanders.
“I think that a better thing would be for you to say right now that you recognize that we have a global crisis and that the United States of America should help lead the world, working with China, Russia and countries around the world to transform our energy system,” Sanders said.
Another major topic of concern for the Democrats at the hearing was how Perry would respond to the likely massive cuts from the Trump administration to the Energy Department, and if Perry would be ready and willing to defend the department's work and budget from his would-be boss.
Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) questioned Perry on his ability to run the department efficiently, as he had spoken of, if these cuts were to be implemented.
STABENOW: What I'm concerned about is, this morning — because I believe you, that you support these projects — but my concern is that we are now hearing in the press that the White House and the transition team, using Heritage Foundation budget proposals, are proposing, I would quote, "to roll back funding for nuclear physics, advanced scientific computing research to 2008 levels, eliminating the office of electricity, eliminating the office of energy efficiency and renewable energy," which I'm just now talking about, "and scrapping the office of fossil energy which focuses on technologies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions."
And so, square this for me: Do you see your role — you're coming into a new position where we are talking about massive cuts in the kinds of things that you have advocated for, you supported in your role as Governor, that are critical to the future of the economy and lowering emissions and creating more efficiencies. If we are really going to do all of that, it needs to be the kinds of things you've been talking about this morning. And yet we just have a new statement that we are talking about massive cuts in the Energy Department.
MURKOWSKI: Governor Perry, Senator Stabenow's time has expired, so if you can just respond very briefly, so that we can get to the other members.
PERRY: Senator, I think all of us, having been in the business we have been in for the years that we have, know that there are always a lot of a lot of statements — sometimes, just because it's on the Internet, it's not true. I can't answer whether that's true or not. What I can tell you is that I know that from my perspective, that moving America forward on the Supercomputing side for instance, Exoscale, is incredibly important for this country's security. And I have no questions at all about whether or not the Trump administration is going to be very supportive of keeping America strong and free. And the technologies that come out of DOE in many cases, they're going to play a very, very important role. I will be an advocate for that. I will be in the room advocating for these types of things. I'm not going to tell you I'm going to be 1000 percent successful in that, but I can assure you, and people who know me and who have worked with me know of my commitment to making sound science, economic science connected together. Because at the end of the day, they make great economic sense and it makes great quality of life sense.
Attempting to evade the question of budgetary cuts by saying that we cannot be sure it is true because "it's on the Internet" was not exactly reassuring. Nor was Perry's conviction that the Trump administration will keep America "strong and free," since that clearly means something very different to the President-elect than it does to much of the country.
Later in the hearing, Senator Angus King (I-ME) went back to this issue of potential slashes to the Energy Department, and pressed Perry for a more concrete commitment to pushing back on these cuts.
KING: People have talked about these cuts. You're going to be called upon to lead in the next several weeks and months. The cuts that are being proposed, if indeed the media reports of this morning are correct, are devastating, and they go to the heart of what we've been talking about today. I hope the people that are proposing these cuts are watching this hearing, because they heard Senator Hoeven use the term "technology really is the way forward." You've talked about it. We've talked about the role of the Department of Energy in fracking research, and just moments ago, you were talking about advanced computing. That is one of the items on the cutting board, apparently! Which is absolutely beyond me, eliminate the office of electricity, office of electrical efficiency and renewable energy, office of fossil energy. This is absolutely nuts in terms of the future of energy in this country.
It seems to me DOE has essentially two functions: One is the nuclear enterprise, which you've discussed; the other is research, and basic research that then can be taken by the private sector and turned into the revolutionary changes that are changing our society, whether it's in fracking or in renewables or offshore energy, whatever it is. You are going to have to really do some hard pushing back on this, because assuming this is true, i find it's almost self-parody to be cutting energy research at this moment in time. But will you commit to me that you are going to be lionhearted in this endeavor to protect your agency, because they are cutting the legs out from under you.
PERRY: Senator, I have a rather interesting background, not unlike yours, defending budgets both from those who are in the know and sometimes people who —
KING: It's hard for me to believe the people recommended these cuts are in any kind of "know."
PERRY: I'll allow your statement to stand. My point is, I know what the Department of Energy should be good at. I have spent enough time making myself aware, both talking to individuals inside the agencies, individuals who have been there before —
KING: I have to cut you off because the Chair is so rigorous about our time, but I really hope you will be strong in this, and I think you've indicated that you will.
Perry's statement about having defended budgets in his past political roles may sound good on its surface, but that defense is a wholly different thing when it is an act by the governor of a state, at whose desk the proverbial buck stops, versus when it is done by a Cabinet Secretary against the President of the United States.
Perry would no longer be the decision-maker, but merely an advocate. And as my colleague, Melissa McEwan noted, we can only be reassured by any promise of independence by Perry and other nominees
"...insofar as we believe that Trump will listen to and adopt the recommendations of members of his cabinet.
And there is precious little reason to believe that he will.
...By his own admission, he does not change his disposition easily, or at all: “I am who I am. It’s me. I don’t wanna change. Everybody talks about, ‘Oh well, you’re gonna pivot, you’re gonna’ — I don’t wanna pivot. I mean, you have to be you. If you start pivoting, you’re not being honest with people."
Trump has made it clear that he will do what he wants to do. His Cabinet nominees can profess divergence from his positions all they want, but it is far from a sure thing that Trump will care to follow them.