×

So what if Trump and Perry shut down the Energy Department? No one will miss it

Rick Perry
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Rick Perry

President-elect Donald Trump is choosing more and more cabinet appointees with long histories of deep disdain for the agencies they will be tasked to lead. The latest is Texas Governor Rick Perry, who Trump has picked to head the Energy Department, which he famously said he would like to shut down (along with the Commerce and Education departments).

Perry joins Dr. Ben Carson, a fierce federal housing critic who Trump has selected to head the department of Housing and Urban Development; Betsy DeVos, a strong opponent of the government's monopoly on public education who has been selected to lead the Education Department; Scott Pruitt, who is Trump's pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, the very agency he is currently suing; Andy Puzder, Trump's choice for Labor Secretary, who opposes most of the newer government labor laws; and Tom Price, Trump's pick to lead the Health Department, a man who wants to gut the department's most pressing work by repealing Obamacare.

Some people are using the "fox guarding the hen house" metaphor to describe these picks. But that's not exactly right. Remember the fox just wants to eat the chickens, not tear down the hen house and put the chickens out of a job.

But will these appointees, if approved, really shut down these departments?

It's a question anyone who remembers their history has to ask forcefully because several politicians and presidential candidates have hinted or even promised to shut down some of these agencies before. Perhaps the best example was Ronald Reagan, who called for shutting down the Energy Department several times during his 1980 run for president only to see the department actually grow larger by the time he left office in 1989.


"Some people are using the 'fox guarding the hen house' metaphor to describe these [Cabinet] picks. But that's not exactly right. Remember the fox just wants to eat the chickens, not tear down the hen house and put the chickens out of a job."

But Trump isn't playing by a typical rule book and historical precedent is pretty useless. So, don't be too surprised if Perry, Carson, DeVos, Puzder and company really do work to shut down or at least institute a massive downsizing of their respective departments.

And that leads us to the really burning question: Will anyone miss those departments if they go away?

We could try to answer that question by diving into the bitterly partisan political and economic debate over the size of government that's been dividing people in this country since the days of Jefferson and Hamilton. Or we could wisely dump that academic argument and realize that the answer lies in how well the Trump team manages to make sure the changes get noticed by normal voters in a positive way. In politics, perception truly is reality.

And history shows that most Americans mostly favor slashing the spending and size of government... until we get into some kind of trouble. For example, support for the Homeland Security Department was only strong because it was proposed so soon after the 9/11 attacks. And support was stronger for President Barack Obama's expanded government bureaucracies, including Obamacare and Dodd Frank, only because they were proposed during the 2008-2009 financial crisis. And the public would have never favored the massive expansions President Franklin Roosevelt brought to Washington had the Great Depression not been raging in full force. Otherwise, every one of those above expansions would pretty much be dead on arrival.

Absent those kinds of crises, there's simply no strong evidence a significant portion of the voting public would protest shuttering or severely gutting the Departments of Energy, HUD, or Education. But let's not be naive; Trump will face a major effort by his political opponents to make any shutdown or major slashing look and sound like a nuclear-level crisis. The perception game is never just a one-way battle. But again, remember that Trump is a different kind of combatant. And the tactics he's already used during the election and the transition period further add to the chances that the general public won't push back on a heavily slashed bureaucracy.

Think of the recent Carrier deal as a possible blueprint. Everyone knows however many jobs the President-elect helped keep in Indiana won't make much of a national economic impact. But the polls show the entire Carrier affair was a major positive for Trump and his outreach to Democrats and independents. Call it "photo op" policy campaigning, but it seems to be working.

And there are so many potentially positive photo ops and potent tweets that Trump's team could whip up connected to shutting down federal agencies. Imagine seeing Trump and Education Secretary DeVos accompanying a cute and well-dressed kid moving out of her crumbling old public school and into a fancy new private school thanks to a school voucher provided by massive savings from a slashed Education Department budget. Imagine a Trump and Perry standing below a big gas station sign in a major city showing prices under $2 a gallon thanks to eliminating Energy Department regulations to reduce supply. Imagine Trump and HUD Secretary Carson in the kitchen with a family in a public housing project looking at the deed to their new home thanks to HUD being replaced by a private ownership equity program. Trump, the former reality show star and master of public persuasion, is the kind of person who could and is probably even likely to pull off all of the above publicity-grabbing events.

It's cynical but, hey, politics is war. Creating a false hysteria or euphoria have long been weapons of political war. Trump and much of his Cabinet team absolutely have the desire to dismantle a massive amount of Washington as we know it. And yet, that team can't possibly hope to politically get away with shutting down major agencies or even significantly slashing their budgets unless they also manage the public reaction to those moves. We know Trump is up to that task; he's been fighting the establishment tooth and nail since he launched his campaign. My bet is that people like Carson, Perry, and even DeVos are probably ready to fight too; that's why Trump chose them.

The war on Washington and for public opinion is on. Let the battle begin.


Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.