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.”