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Rick Perry's views on the Constitution get closer scrutiny

Now that Texas' governor is a GOP candidate for president, opinions in his book — that Social Security is unconstitutional, for example — move into the spotlight.

August 23, 2011|By David G. Savage, Washington Bureau
  • Texas Gov. Rick Perry with supporters in Austin.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry with supporters in Austin. (Larry W. Smith, European…)

Reporting from Washington — Texas Gov. Rick Perry, faulting much of what the federal government did in the 20th century, has called Social Security a "failure" and "an illegal Ponzi scheme" and also cast doubt on the constitutionality of federal laws on food safety, minimum wages, bans on child labor, environmental protection and Medicare.

"Ever since the dawn of the so-called Progressive movement over a century ago, liberals have used every tool at their disposal — including notably the Supreme Court — to wage a gradual war on the Constitution and the American way of life," Perry wrote last year in "Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America from Washington."

"Social Security is something we have been forced to accept for more than 70 years," he said. "And there stands a crumbling monument to the failure of the New Deal … all at the expense of respect for the Constitution and limited government."

Perry's 191-page book drew little notice when it was published in November. But now that he is running for the Republican nomination for president, his views on Social Security and other federal programs will be carefully scrutinized.

The book's aim, he wrote, was to provoke a "new conversation about the proper role of government in our lives. Now, cynics will say that I decided to write this book because I seek higher office. They are wrong."

University of Texas law professor Daniel B. Rodriguez said Perry's "libertarian, small-government views" were popular in Texas and elsewhere, but he questioned the comments on Social Security. "He is quite right to say the New Deal era reflected an enormous change in the relationship between the national government and citizens. But to suggest Social Security is unconstitutional is a fringe view," Rodriguez said.

Campaign aides said Perry would not seek to slash or repeal Social Security if he won the White House.

"When it comes to Social Security today," Perry believes there should be "a robust debate about entitlements, a debate about extending the retirement age for younger people and for other changes that will make Social Security and Medicare more stable and financially sound going forward," said campaign spokesman Ray Sullivan. "We need to protect benefits for those who are at or near retirement, so they don't have anything to worry about."

Perry is a champion of states' rights and devotes part of his book to arguing that freedom for Americans depends on diverse states that are free to go their own way. "I would no more consider living in Massachusetts than I suspect a great number of folks from Massachusetts would like to live in Texas," he wrote.

In his view, the nation went off track early in the 20th century when Progressives argued the federal government needed to tax the wealthy and break up corporate monopolies. He says the American people made a mistake or "were snookered" when "during a fit of populist rage" they amended the Constitution to authorize the income tax and to call for the direct election of U.S. senators. Before, senators were picked by state legislatures.

Michael Greve, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said Perry's views would have more appeal to "tea party" conservatives than to business conservatives.

"State taxes and state regulation have exploded in the last three decades. I see the surface appeal of saying less power to Washington means smaller government, but it's not necessarily true. The Chamber of Commerce would rather have to deal with one federal regulation than regulations from 50 states," he said.

Perry described the 1913 passage of the 16th and 17th Amendments as a "great milestone on the road to serfdom." The federal income tax gave Washington "a giant faucet of money" to exercise control over the states and the people, he said.

He also heaps scorn on the New Deal era of the 1930s. Then, "an arrogant President [Franklin] Roosevelt, an emboldened Congress" and a compliant Supreme Court agreed the federal government could enforce minimum wages, regulate manufacturers, protect unions, police Wall Street and guarantee pensions for older Americans. The result, he wrote, has been "a complete and total failure."

Perry, who referred to the justices as "nine oligarchs in robes," said he was not convinced that Social Security and Medicare were constitutional.

"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 healthcare," he said in a book interview with Newsweek last fall. "Whether it's Social Security, whether it's Medicaid, whether it's Medicare … they're bankrupt. They're a Ponzi scheme. I challenge anybody to stand up and defend the Social Security program that we have today."

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota have not published similar accounts of their constitutional views, but both agree with Perry that the 10th Amendment, which states that powers not delegated to the federal government are reserved for the states or the people, puts an important limit on federal power.

"I believe in the 10th Amendment of the Constitution," Romney said during a recent GOP presidential candidates' debate in Iowa. He called President Obama's national healthcare overhaul "bad constitutional law. … The right answer for every state is to determine what's right for those states."

Bachmann disagreed in part, saying she believed an individual mandate to purchase health insurance would be unconstitutional, whether imposed by Washington or the states. "This is clearly an unconstitutional action, whether it's done at the federal level or whether it's the state level," she said.

david.savage@latimes.com

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