08.12.11

Rick Perry on the Record

From scrapping Social Security and Medicare to immigration to Constitutional amendments, Texas Governor Rick Perry spoke openly last fall with Andrew Romano.

In Fed Up!, you criticize the progressive era and the changes it produced: the 16th and 17th Amendments, Social Security, Medicare, and so on. I understand being against these things in principle—of longing for a world in which they never existed. But now that they’re part of the fabric of our society, do you think we should actually do away with them? 

I think every program needs to stand the sunshine of righteous scrutiny. Whether it’s Social Security, whether it’s Medicaid, whether it’s Medicare. You’ve got $115 trillion worth of unfunded liability in those three. They’re bankrupt. They’re a Ponzi scheme. I challenge anybody to stand up and defend the Social Security program that we have today—and particularly defend it to a 27-year-old young man who’s just gotten married and is trying to get his life headed in the right direction economically. I happen to think that the Progressive movement was the beginning of the deterioration of our Constitution from the standpoint of it being abused and misused to do things that Congress wanted to do, and/or the Supreme Court wanted to implement. The New Deal was the launching pad for the Washington largesse as we know it today. And I think we should have a legitimate, honest, national discussion about Washington’s continuing to spend money we don’t have on programs that we don’t need. 

America’s looming debt crisis is a real problem, but neither Republicans nor Democrats have really been addressing it seriously. What solutions should your party be pushing?  

I think the states are the ones who should be making the decision on whether or not they want to be spending their dollars on those types of programs—not having it made in Washington, D.C. 

I see how that might make sense for, say, education. But what would it mean for something like Social Security—a big, national safety net? In the book, you call Social Security a “failure” that “we have been forced to accept for more than 70 years now.” Is it time for it to end? 

Well, the counties of Matagorda, Bresoria, and Galveston in 1981 decided they wanted to opt out of this Social Security program. They have now very well funded programs and their employees are going to be substantially better taken care of then anybody in Social Security. So I would suggest a legitimate conversation about let the states keep their money and implement the programs. That’s one option that’s out there. But I didn’t write the book and say here are all the solutions. I think the first step in finding the solutions is admitting we have a problem—and admitting that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme. 

What about Medicare? That’s an even bigger contributor to these debt problems. 

Here’s the problem, in the 25 years that I’ve worked in Texas state government both as a legislator, an appropriator, then as lieutenant governor and the governor of Texas: Washington attaches strings to all these programs. They take away the incentive for innovation because they say here is a portion of your money back and here are the only ways that you can spend it. That on its face is bad public policy. And again, I think it’s an abuse of our Constitution. There’s no place in the Constitution that says Washington, D.C. is supposed to be mandated health-care coverage, for example. That gets to the very core of the book. If America really wants to be strong again, we need to get back to the principles this country was based upon. The Constitution as it was written, and the 10th Amendment that clearly says the states are where these decisions should be made. Moving back in that direction will create substantially more competition. States should be laboratories of innovation. I promise you, I know you did a profile on Bobby Jindal, who I happen to think is one of the brightest governors in our country. Bobby knows health care very well. If he were given the freedom from the federal government to come up with his own innovative ways working with his legislature to deliver his own health-care innovations to his citizens, I guarantee he could do it more efficiently and more effectively than one-size-fits-all coming out of Washington, D.C. 

But again, Medicare. It’s been in place for more than four decades now. What do you suggest we do to set it on a more fiscally sustainable path going forward? 

I think we need to have a national discussion and not be afraid to talk about it. That is my goal. I didn’t write the book and say anywhere in it, I got all the solutions. What I did say is, We have to be courageous as a country and stand up and admit that we have a Social Security program that is bankrupt, that is a Ponzi scheme, that Medicare and Medicaid collective had $106 trillion worth of liability that is unfunded, and that we need to deal with it and quit passing it on to the next Congress and the next generation. 

You’re a supporter of the Tea Party movement. What was your reaction when activists were out there saying “keep your government hands off my Medicare”? Isn’t that a contradiction? Medicare is a government program, but a lot of people are reluctant to have it affected in any way—even as they’re calling for spending cuts. Doesn’t that make the job of balancing the budget and shrinking Washington more difficult? 

[Laughs] I think you can find any sign on any issue at any rally. I’m not going to respond to one person’s sign. 

I think the first step in finding the solutions is admitting we have a problem—and admitting that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme.

That’s fair. But the larger problem is that we have Republicans in Washington railing against Medicare cuts in the Democratic health plan—even though they’re exactly the kind of cuts they’ve been advocating for decades. Can we take these talking points about reduced spending seriously when the people who are making them are refusing to actually cut the necessary programs?  

I would suggest that any Republican who is not going to work toward finding a solution to the budgetary problems that we have in this country ought to just go home and just let somebody come who really is interested in not spending more dollars that we don’t have on programs that we don’t want. The issue is about spending. One of my solutions that I would move forward on is put a freeze on spending for a year. Quit doing the earmarks. These are simplistic but the fact of the matter is they’ll go a long way toward giving the private sector the confidence that Washington is not going to continue spending dollars in the long or short term, devaluing the dollars they have today. You want to see job creation, get some stability in Washington, D.C. And frankly if you want to see a great growth spurt in America, have Washington basically block grant those dollars back to the states and have the states come up with their own innovative ways to deliver health care, pension programs, whatever it make be: transportation, infrastructure, education. Our goal is to quit sending so much money to Washington, D.C.  

Let’s talk about some Constitutional issues, which take up a large part of your book. In the book, you argue against the 17th Amendment, which allowed the people to elect their senators directly instead of letting their state legislatures do it for them. This has become a big Tea Party talking point, but I’m not sure I understand the logic behind it. You say that by allowing people to elect their own senators, “the states have handed over a significant chunk of their sovereignty to the federal government.” But wouldn’t we be less free, and the country less democratic, if we didn’t have a say in who was representing us in Washington? 

Stand by just a second. [30 seconds of silence.] OK, I’m back with you. I apologize. I’m sorry, I got distracted when you were talking. I think the issue is about consolidating the power in Washington, D.C. The 17th Amendment is one of those where they were making... the states were historically more in control when they decided who those senators were going to be. They took the states out of the process at that particular point in time. So that’s the... uh... the historic concept of checks and balances, when you had the concept of the federal government and the states. The 17th Amendment is when the states started getting out of balance with the federal government, is my belief. 

Some Tea Partiers call for the 17th Amendment to be reversed or repealed. Is that something you would support? 

Here’s what I think. We need to get the spending under control before we start... This is kind of like, deliver my mail on time, preferably on Saturdays, defend the border before you come down here and start telling us how to do all these other things. The base responsibilities... If the federal government would just take care of the base responsibilities the Constitution calls for then we might have a bit more progressive conversation about the federal government getting involved in a whole lot of other things. But for me, that’s what people are really upset about. We’ve got a border with Mexico that’s not secure today. We had another Texas citizen killed yesterday in Juarez. Americans are looking at that and going, Why are you trying to tell us how to educate our children, how to deliver health care, how to do this myriad of things, you know, what kind of cars we can drive, what kind of lightbulbs we can have in our house, when you’re not even taking care of your basic responsibilities. And so I kind of put the repeal of the 17th Amendment in the, you know... It’s important to have that conversation, but relative to the spending, it’s secondary.  

tThe Constitution says that “the Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes… to provide for the… general Welfare of the United States.” But I noticed that when you quoted this section on page 116, you left “general welfare” out and put an ellipsis in its place. Progressives would say that “general welfare” includes things like Social Security or Medicare—that it gives the government the flexibility to tackle more than just the basic responsibilities laid out explicitly in our founding document.  What does “general welfare” mean to you? 

I don’t think our founding fathers when they were putting the term “general welfare” in there were thinking about a federally operated program of pensions nor a federally operated program of health care. What they clearly said was that those were issues that the states need to address. Not the federal government. I stand very clear on that. From my perspective, the states could substantially better operate those programs if that’s what those states decided to do. 

So in your view those things fall outside of general welfare. But what falls inside of it? What did the Founders mean by “general welfare”? 

I don’t know if I’m going to sit here and parse down to what the Founding Fathers thought general welfare meant. 

But you just said what you thought they didn’t mean by general welfare. So isn’t it fair to ask what they did mean? It’s in the Constitution. 

[Silence.] 

OK. Moving on. Many Tea Partiers want to repeal the 14th Amendment, which provides for birthright citizenship. Do you agree with them? 

Again, I think it’s one of those that you put out there and have a discussion on the issue. But the 14th Amendment was clearly put in place during a period of time when we had individual coming into the country, and it served its purpose. Is it being abused today? It may be. But from the standpoint of does it rise to the level of having a constitutional prohibition or removal of that, probably not. 

You mentioned border security, earlier. You’re the governor of a border state and have been for some time. As you write in the book, Ronald Reagan signed a bill in 1986 trying to reform immigration that didn’t work out—the borders security provisions weren’t enforced—then President George W. Bush tried again and could get it through Congress because “people had been to that rodeo before.” Is there a possible path to pursued in two parts: first, a measure that establishes stricter border security and then, and only then, a later measure that provides a pathway to citizenship for the millions of immigrants who are here illegally? A one-two punch. 

We have a pathway to citizenship in this country today: it’s get in the line and do what it takes to get here legally. You cannot have a comprehensive discussion about immigration reform until you secure the border. I’ve got a 1,200 mile border with Mexico and it’s not secure. We have American citizens being killed, we have drugs coming across, we have illegal immigrations and all types of other human trafficking going on. Our border is not secure because our federal government has been an abject failure at it. 

I think everyone can agree on that, but... 

Here’s what everyone should agree on: get the border secure, then we can have a conversation about what type immigration policy we want to put in place. If there’s a revolving door at the border, your immigration policy is not worth the paper it’s written on. 

But just to be clear: if border security is accomplished, you can envision some sort of path to citizenship for people who are here illegally. 

Sure. 

You write about how drastically the size of government has expanded over the past few decades. But during much of that time, Republicans were in office. The government grew under Nixon. It grew under Ford. It grew under Reagan. And it grew under Bush. These presidents couldn’t cut spending or shrink Washington. Does that mean they weren’t true conservatives? 

I think I could probably go through and find programs from each of those presidents that were not as conservative as I am. Again, what I think we need to be focusing on is our current situation here. Going back and picking and choosing what either the Nixon or the Bush 41 or the Reagan years didn’t do right is not particularly productive.  

I understand that. But the arc of history you trace in the book is all about this inexorable growth of government and the harm that it’s done to the country. 

As I point out, it happened with Woodrow Wilson and the monstrous growth of the New Deal. If what you’re asking me is if Ronald Reagan is more conservative than Franklin Roosevelt, uh, yeah, I think so. 

But the larger question that I’m trying to get it is whether it’s even possible to be your kind of conservative—the kind of conservative you’re advocating for in this book—if you’re working in Washington. Because in theory, Reagan was your kind of conservative, and yet government grew when he was in office. Can conservatives actually reverse the last 75 years of federal policy?  

Sure. Absolutely they can. We just have to be principled and disciplined and learn how to say no. The idea that you can’t put the genie back in the bottle is not correct. I don’t subscribe to it. It takes people who will say no to special interests and no to new spending, and say yes to allowing the states to be more in control of their futures. 

Earlier this year you told Newsweek that “when the history books are written, I think George W. Bush will go down as … an incredibly good president.” 

I still think that. 

But in this book you slam Bush’s 2008 stimulus as “a quick (non) fix” and criticize him for signing into law “large education increases and a massive expansion of Medicare to the tune of more than $500 billion.” Later, you criticize his attempt at comprehensive immigration reform and disparage his notion of compassionate conservatism. Are you now saying that in some sense, President Bush was a disappointment domestically? 

Yeah, there were programs that President Bush promoted that I don’t think, neither on the front side or not with history, were particularly good. Medicare Part D was one of those. A $7 trillion expansion in that one program. 

You also place a lot of blame for the growing deficits on Obama, and his stimulus package in particular. But if you were president after Lehman Brothers collapsed, and you were facing that economic crisis, what would you have done? 

I think you allow the market to work its way through it. The idea that we own an automobile company today is staggering in its proportions. I don’t understand why the TARP bill exists. Let the processes find their way. I don’t think it’s the government's job to be protecting a company that’s “too big to fail.” I don’t buy into that premise. We have bankruptcy laws and reorganization laws on our books for a reason. I think history will show those were bad decisions. 

But the counterargument is that if GM collapsed, there would have been tons of jobs lost—and now it’s profitable again. Without TARP, the banking system would’ve imploded—and now the money’s been paid back. 

I don’t necessarily buy into the premise that somehow or another those measures saved these jobs. There are companies that get restructured on a regular basis and the workers don’t lose their jobs. They get new management, they put a pay-out plan in place and we go on about our business rather than getting these huge amounts of debt piled on future generations. 

Another criticism you have of Obama is on health care—and in particular the individual mandate, which you call unconstitutional. But according to the Constitution, Congress has the right to regulate interstate commerce. Shouldn’t that include health insurance? After all, most health insurance is sold through interstate companies. And when a person declines to purchase health insurance, that affects interstate commerce by driving up health insurance premiums for everyone else. 

I happen to think that forcing citizens to buy a private sector product is unconstitutional on its face. I can’t find that anywhere in the Constitution. The commerce clause has been highly overused, and that’s just another example of it through the years.   

You were just reelected. When you finish out this term, it’ll be 14 years as governor of Texas—an all-time record. Given that there are no term limits in the Lone Star state, are you planning to stay on and run again? 

To look past this term, the next four years, is way down the road. To say “here’s what I’m going to be doing in 2014” is a bit of stretch. 

But you’ve said that you’ve got the best job in the country... 

I do. 

... and that you have no interest in running president. Still the case? 

Not going to run for president. Not going to be a vice-presidential candidate. Not going to be in anybody’s cabinet. And I suspect I’m not going to be anybody’s ambassador either.