The current push by the Obama administration and many in Congress to curb duplicative programs has a modern-day flavor -- record budget deficits and the demands of a globalized economy are driving the bid to streamline federal agencies.
But beware of the term “unprecedented.” Many of the tensions between the legislative and executive branches over who causes overlap in programs were debated as far back as World War I, as explained by Mordecai Lee, a professor of governmental affairs at the School of Continuing Education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
In his 2006 book Institutionalizing Congress and the Presidency, Lee provides a history of the U.S. Bureau of Efficiency, a little-known entity that existed as an independent agency from 1916 to 1933. As “the first agency of disinterested management professionals in the federal government,” he writes, its chief purpose was crisis management and classification of personnel for the president. In its first few years, the bureau “created an extensive card index of government activities in an effort to create a database that could be used to identify possible duplication and overlap,” Lee notes.
The agency advised the new Bureau of the Budget (precursor to the Office of Management and Budget, created in 1921), and its leader -- an “efficiency expert” named Herbert D. Brown -- concluded in a paper that the problem of duplication was not widespread. “It is true that Congress sometimes passes legislation that authorizes duplications,” Brown said, “but in actual practice, the departments are careful to keep off each other’s toes.”