Profiles in Liberty: Phil Kerpen of American Commitment

Phil Kerpen is president of American Commitment, a columnist on Fox News Opinion, chairman of the Internet Freedom Coalition, and author of Democracy Denied: How Obama is Ignoring You and Bypassing Congress to Radically Transform America - and How to Stop Him.

The Hill newspaper named Mr. Kerpen a “Top Grassroots Lobbyist” in 2011. His op-eds have run in newspapers across the country and he is a frequent radio and television commentator on economic growth issues.

Prior to joining American Commitment, Kerpen served as vice president for policy at Americans for Prosperity. He also previously worked as an analyst and researcher for the Free Enterprise Fund, the Club for Growth, and the Cato Institute.

Kerpen blasts out spirited, pro-liberty tweets @Kerpen.

Phil Kerpen

Matt Naugle: How did you become a conservative?

Phil Kerpen: There wasn’t any single event. I just chalk it up to good judgment and an understanding that people generally make better choices and decisions for themselves than others do for them.  I read some of the Austrians in high school and have been convinced since that central planning is always a disaster not just for practical reasons but, because of the knowledge problem, for theoretical reasons as well.  Plus I have a moral preference for a system that maximizes individual freedom.

MN: In late 2011, you published a hard-hitting book, Democracy Denied. What lead you to write the book? What is the REINS Act? And a year publication, how much worse is President Obama’s regulatory mess?

PK: I had been tracking regulatory abuses and excesses for awhile, because many of the policy issues I care about are in the regulatory realm, like communications, energy, and financial services.  Around the time that Democrats were contriving to bypass Scott Brown’s election in Massachusetts I came up with the Obama Chart (www.ObamaChart.com) which showed many examples of the president going around the legitimate legislative process to advance his objectives.  The day after the 2010 landslide, when Obama said cap-and-trade was only one way of skinning the cat and he’d have the EPA pursue the same ends without legislation was the moment I was inspired to write it all down the book that became Democracy Denied.

The REINS (Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny) Act is the most important reform idea to restore Congress to its proper constitutional role of writing the laws that affect our economy.  Right now so much of that it delegated away to unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats.  The REINS Act would require approval from Congress before any economically significant rules could take effect.  Would Congress approve a lot of bad ideas? Of course.  But unlike bureaucrats they are subject to an accountability mechanism in elections, so we’d have a much better chance of getting good policy outcomes.

The bill started with a 78 year-old tea party activist from northern Kentucky.  It’s a pretty amazing story that I cover in depth with interviews in chapter 1 of Democracy Denied.  A shorter version was in the Weekly Standard.

MN: You were at AFP for almost 6 years. Why did you leave to form American Commitment, and what does your new group do?

PK: Six years is a long time, I learned a tremendous amount at AFP and we had some big accomplishments.  For me, it was time to step up from vice president to president and try my hand at running an organization.  I also perceived a real market need for a group positioned at the intersection of think tanks and grassroots groups, providing substantive policy analysis in a form that’s easily understandable by the public at large and in a timely fashion.  That’s what American Commitment does on the key economic issues.

MN: Is the carbon dioxide you and I exhale really a form of pollution?

PK: No, and Massachusetts v. EPA was one of the most egregiously decided Supreme Court decisions in recent memory.  Bureaucrats and courts should not be contriving to force wholesale regulation of the entire U.S. economy in a way that was never contemplated by Congress.  If the left feigns outrage over a potential 5-4 decision striking down part of the president’s health care law, conservatives should point out that the left cheered for a 5-4 decision in Massachusetts v. EPA that transferred power over our economy from Congress to the bureaucracy.

If Romney is elected president, one of his first actions should be to instruct the EPA to withdraw the greenhouse gas endangerment finding.  If America is going to adopt a greenhouse gas regulatory policy, it needs to be voted on by elected officials.

MN: The EPA is a poster child for a regulatory agency that is out of control. How do we stop their blatant job-killing agenda?

PK: We force votes in Congress, and then hold the elected officials who vote to green-light the job-crushing agenda of regulators accountable.  We’ve had important votes on Boiler MACT and Utility MACT, and greenhouse gas regulation in this Congress.  Those votes need to be significant issues in the election.

MN: When someone hears the details about the net neutrality, their eyes glaze over with boredom. What should the average internet user know about?

PK: That it’s being advanced as a pretext for changing the Internet from a free-market, lightly-regulated engine of economic growth, innovation, and creativity to something more like the old-fashioned telephone utility, with federal regulators calling the shots.

The founder of the leading group pushing net neutrality is a Marxist college professor named Roberty McChesney.  This is what he said:

“At the moment, the battle over network neutrality is not to completely eliminate the telephone and cable companies. We are not at that point yet. But the ultimate goal is to get rid of the media capitalists in the phone and cable companies and to divest them from control.”

I cover this in depth in chapter 3 of Democracy Denied.

MN: As a major figure in the Tea Party movement, how is the Tea Party today? Are people still angry and organizing rallies?

PK: Stronger than ever, and more focused than ever on winning elections and, more importantly, changing public policy outcomes.

MN: Do you recycle, use CFL bulbs, or drive a hybrid? Why or why not?

PK: I recycle because it’s the law in DC, and believe in following even the laws I disagree with.  We use incandescent bulbs, because we prefer them aesthetically and are willing to pay for their lower efficiency.  Not a fan of hybrids; for some reason most of the Prius drivers I see around town are annoying bad drivers.  But if we could get rid of all the subsidies I think there is room for legitimate differences in customer preferences to support a range of “green” products, and that’s fine.

MN: You are interested in academic debate on the high school and college level. Can you tell us more about that?

PK: It’s something I did for a long time, although now that I have a family I haven’t been volunteering with the local league as often as I used to.  I don’t think there’s any better activity for developing critical thinking, public speaking, and information processing than academic debate.  I’ve supporting expanding debate programs in the public schools.  (For instance: this)

MN: When you’re not busy fighting statism and debating, what do you do for fun?

PK: Spend time with my daughter, wife, and the twins who presently reside in her womb! Also an avid Mets fan, which has a lot of ups and downs.

MN: Besides Phil Kerpen, who should be President?

PK: I’m not sure I could run for office.  I used to live in a co-op and lost four times running for the board of directors before finally winning the fifth – when I was unopposed.  Being a candidate requires a lot of message discipline and I like to say what I think.  I’d love to see Scott Walker be president some day.  About five years ago I was the featured speaker at a small event with about 25 people at the Sprecher Brewery in Milwaukee.  County Executive Scott Walker stopped by for a 10 minute talk before my speech.  Afterwards I told a friend who was there that when Walker’s president my claim to fame will be that he was once my opening act!  The guy has unbelievable talent and courage.

MN: Your brother Dave Kerpen is a reality tv star. If you had to pick a reality show for yourself, which cast would join?

PK: The Apprentice, or maybe the Next Food Network Star.  I like to cook.

MN: Final words of wisdom?

PK: Some people don’t like the title of my book, because they insist the counter-majoritarian elements of our republic are as important or even more important than the democratic ones.  I have some sympathy with that view, but I think for better or worse, we’re at a point now where nearly no aspect of our lives is truly protected from democratic negotiation.  So we need to forcefully engage in the democratic process if we want to keep a large part of our lives out of government control.  It’s something of a paradox.

My real point in calling the book “Democracy Denied” was that if we have a huge landslide election in favor of smaller government, we shouldn’t have a president whose party claims to love democracy contriving to ignore the election and continue an unpopular agenda.

Democracy Denied


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