In making the case that he is qualified to head a department he once famously called to abolish, Rick Perry on Thursday said he now believes the $32.5 billion Energy Department should stick around after all.
“My past statements made over five years ago about abolishing the Department of Energy do not reflect my current thinking," the former Texas governor told senators at the start of his confirmation hearing.
"I reject recommending its elimination," he added.
As a candidate for president five years ago, Perry made the elimination of the departments of Commerce, Education, and Energy a campaign pledge, one meant to show his commitment to reducing the size of the federal government.
But during a primary debate in 2011, he forgot the name of the Department of Energy when repeating the budget-cutting promise.
"The third one, I can’t," Perry said on the debate stage after several minutes of struggling to recall the name of the agency. "Sorry. Oops."
Like many politicians who were once critical of the mission of a federal agency that they went on to lead, Perry is signaling he has embraced the central mission of the Department of Energy, which is to secure civilian control of the US nuclear arsenal and conduct the bulk of federally funded basic scientific research in physics.
While the department has an office dedicated to fossil fuels, like many outsiders, Perry once thought the energy secretary's job was to advocate for US oil and gas interests, the New York Times reported (to some controversy).
Perry said he came around to supporting its mission "after being briefed on so many of the vital functions of the Department of Energy."
By addressing his past comments head on, Perry curtailed a looming line of questioning that Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington and other Democrats on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources seemed set to ask the former Texas governor.
"Gov. Perry, I liked several things you had to say," Cantwell said after Perry's opening statement.
"He didn't have to say all that, but he did, so he clearly has come around to supporting the Energy Department," Mike Lubell, a science policy expert at City College of New York, told BuzzFeed News. "The question is to what extent he will be calling the shots."
Former Energy Department head Spencer Abraham had similarly called for eliminating the agency while a senator from Michigan, and then reversed his stance after taking it over during the second Bush Administration. "He surrounded himself with very good people," Lubell said. "My impression is that Perry would do it the same way."
Nevertheless, the Trump transition team may not share Perry's newfound sentiments. Citing press reports that Trump’s internal team wants deep cuts to the department — including eliminating its Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy — Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii asked if he agreed.
"Maybe they’ll have the same experience I had and forget they said that,” Perry said to laughs on both sides of the aisle.