20 August 2014
The Perry Case
Last year the district attorney of Travis County, Texas, was arrested for drunk driving. She displayed the arrogance of the privileged while under arrest, demanding that the local sheriff be summoned to take care of her problem. She served 45 days for the offense and returned to work. Texas doesn't provide for automatic removal of such an official for such an offense. Nor does the governor of the state have the power to remove her. However, he shares in the power of the purse. The governor's idea was to cut off funding for her office, which includes a Public Integrity Unit, by vetoing the relevant spending provision, thus rendering her powerless. She has not resigned, though she will retire at the end of her term. Now the governor is in legal jeopardy. A special prosecutor claims that the governor abused his power and illegally attempted to coerce a public servant by using his veto and, apparently more damningly, stating explicitly that he would veto the funding if the district attorney didn't resign. Some observers have suggested that the governor might not be so deep in trouble had he simply used his veto without issuing the threat. Since this is America, most people will base their judgments on the matter on the fact that the governor is Rick Perry, a Republican who made a fool of himself in the last presidential campaign but may run for that office again in 2016. Regardless of his identity, it's probably a more relevant fact that the district attorney's Public Integrity Office was investigating the Cancer Research and Prevention Institute of Texas, a project in which cronies of Perry were closely involved, and that Perry would be able to name the d.a.'s replacement had she resigned. But all this shows is that there are no good guys in this particular story, since the d.a.'s drunken spree arguably demonstrated her unfitness for public office, and especially for a post responsible for "public integrity." It may be that Perry took advantage of an opportunity he didn't create to try to force her out of office, but it's not obvious to me, not being a Texan, that his actions, however opportunistic or even cynical, are also illegal. A decade ago, I recall it being suggested that Congress stop the war in Iraq by denying funding to the military. That's obviously another level of government, but it suggests that in general denying funding is a legitimate way to check unpopular or unwise policies. It's being argued in Texas that it isn't a legitimate way to target an individual or force her out of office. But it follows from none of this that this person should still have herself, except according to the letter of an inadequate law. She shouldn't be the victim or hero of this story, since its real moral seems to be, however much we'd like to reject stereotypes of a "political class," that politicians in the American Bipolarchy are too often just plain jerks.