Another president is reorganizing government. Again.
Newly elected presidents call for the reorganization of the federal government with such regularity that a federal Department of Reorganization should be established to assist them in their attempts to downsize the bureaucracy, eliminate redundant agencies, reduce red tape, cut costs, and tame the out-of-control agencies created and fed by the presidents elected before them. If you’re earnest enough to think that those moves will actually reduce the size or cost of federal government, I’ve got a monument I’d like to sell you.
President Barack Obama originally promised to streamline federal bureaucracy in his 2011 State of the Union speech but only got around to specifics last Friday, as he requested new powers to merge agencies subject to an up-or-down vote by Congress. Obama’s first target: the Commerce Department. He wants to meld the Small Business Administration and five additional trade and business agencies into one body that would replace the Department of Commerce. Obama promised savings of $3 billion over the next decade and to cut 1,000 to 2,000 jobs through attrition over the same period.
The presidential urge to reorganize goes back to Theodore Roosevelt, who established the Keep Commission in 1905 to bring efficiency and accountability to bureaucracy. Scholar Oscar Kraines admiringly called Roosevelt’s attempt to remake Washington in his image “a bold step … to break down the long-existing aim and the tendency of Congress to retain full legislative authority in the management of the public business.” According to political scientist Peri E. Arnold, 11 of 14 presidents elected in the 20th century attempted some sort of governmental reorganization. Congress rightly viewed the Keep Commission as a presidential power grab and has continued to contest similar presidential reorg plans by Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, the Bushes and Bill Clinton — who called his reorganization plan “reinventing government.”
Jimmy Carter was probably the grabbiest of the reorg lot. Although he based his 1976 presidential campaign on reorganizing government to make it work better, once he got to the White House he merely expanded the bureaucracy, adding the Department of Energy and the Department of Education to the Cabinet. (He proposed both a Department of Developmental Assistance and a Department of Natural Resources, incorporating Interior and some agencies from Agriculture, but Congress said no.)
“Carter’s determination to move ahead on cabinet-level reorganization despite the misgivings of many of his aides about both the value and political feasibility of the project is puzzling,” wrote Ronald P. Seyb in a study of the Carter years. “Even the plan’s strongest supporters conceded that it would do little to streamline the bureaucracy because of Carter’s promise that reorganization would not require personnel reductions, realize cost savings, or generate noticeable improvements in administrative efficiency, and the political opposition it would provoke would be close to insuperable.”
Supporters invariably wrap federal reorganization up in good-government rhetoric about capturing efficiencies and saving taxpayers money. Done right, reorgs can be a force for good, but they are usually just a diversion in the power game. Presidents may say they want to reform the bureaucracies out of a desire to trim and speed the bureaucracies, but more often than not their real motivation is to break the bureaucracies’ hold on power. (The most effective downsizing of government comes when whole agencies are eliminated or neutered, as was the case in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Congress and the White House gutted the Civil Aeronautics Board and the Interstate Commerce Commission. Strictly speaking, the CAB and ICC weren’t reorged, they were destroyed.)
“Simply put, with the exception of few symbolic issues, almost anything a president wishes to accomplish must be accomplished through the bureaucracy,” David Lowery writes in his article “The Presidency, the Bureaucracy, and Reinvention: A Gentle Plea for Chaos.” This makes bureaucracies the president’s enemy. He resents any bureaucracy whose first allegiance is to Congress, corporate constituents, or activist brigades. Obama, like presidents before him, swings the reorganizational wrecking ball not so much to increase efficiencies as to weaken congressional power over Cabinet bureaucracies and strengthen executive branch control.
In his Friday speech, Obama unintentionally acknowledged how presidents stack and restack bureaucracies to maximize White House power. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is now inside Commerce, would be shuffled off to the Department of Interior. Obama claimed that NOAA was originally placed inside Commerce instead of Interior, because “apparently, it had something to do with President Nixon being unhappy with his Interior secretary for criticizing him about the Vietnam War.” That Barack Obama would pull a similar reorg trick if he were feuding with his Interior secretary should go without saying. If you can’t beat your bureaucratic enemies, reorg your way around them.
Obama reminded us all that presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan held the power to reorg that he seeks: All he wants is what Congress allowed to lapse in 1984. That’s true. But he insulted everybody with an IQ greater than 85 by adding that his request shouldn’t be regarded as “a partisan issue.” The diminution of congressional power — especially Republican congressional power — can’t be seen as anything but partisan. No committee chairman, even if the president hails from his party, wants to see his current authority disrupted by a shuffling of the Cabinet deck.
Besides fighting the Republican Congress, Obama will also have to go a few rounds with the agencies he hopes to reshuffle. NOAA doesn’t necessarily want to relocate from Commerce, where it is the biggest agency, to Interior where it would cast a lesser footprint. And as Government Executive reported on Friday, environmental activists, who dislike Interior’s “culture,” reject the idea of a NOAA reorg. “The move could erode the capabilities and mute the voice of the government’s primary agency for protecting our oceans and the ecosystems and economies that depend on them,” said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Fishermen aren’t happy about the plan either.
If Obama were truly invested in reorganizing government, he would have proposed something earlier than in primary season, he would have proposed something more ambitious, and he would have offered the Republicans something of political value in exchange for giving him something of political value. Rarely has an attempt to reorganize Washington been so disorganized.
After the Obama reorg goes through, Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com will be handled by Interior and my Twitter feed will be overseen by Commerce. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns and subscribe to this hand-built RSS feed for corrections to my column.
PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about government reform at the White House in Washington, January 13, 2012. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque