Flattening Government

Why rhetoric on killing agencies so seldom becomes reality.

When the lights went out on the Interstate Commerce Commission on Dec. 31, 1995, the chaos that can surround the closing of a federal agency had been unfolding for months.

The House and Senate cast opposing votes on whether to abolish or to simply shrink the 107-year-old regulator of rail and truck shipping rates in an era of deregulation. The stalemate wasn't resolved until two days before the shutdown.

In a year's time, the number of ICC employees had shrunk from 600 to 302, and two-thirds of the agency's office space stood empty. The General Services Administration haggled to move a cadre of staff from the fine-hewn ICC building on Constitution Avenue-its headquarters since 1934-to Transportation Department digs in southwest Washington. And ICC officials scrambled to close field offices and to lay off or reassign employees in a reduction in force. ICC Commissioner Gail McDonald bemoaned the timing and puzzling "policy logic" of the death sentence, made plain by the hazy status of the commission's regulations still on the books with no agency designated to update or enforce them. She told the Associated Press, "The budget-cutters just want to take one out, and the ICC is a small, weak agency."

Flash forward to the high drama of 2011. Hit lists for federal organizations have been bandied about furiously. The Education and Energy departments would be shuttered under the 2011 Cut Federal Spending Act, the first bill introduced by freshman Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. The Commerce and Housing and Urban Development departments should be scrapped, "for starters," former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, and Matt Kibbe, president of the pro-Tea Party group Freedom Works, wrote in a Jan. 19 Wall Street Journal op-ed.

AmeriCorps and the Small Business Administration would go, and air traffic control would be privatized, said the libertarian Cato Institute. A list unveiled by the Republican Study Committee on Jan. 20 was billed as saving an eye-popping $2.5 trillion over a decade. Introduced as the Spending Reduction Act by Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., the plan would eliminate the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Legal Services Corporation, the national endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, the U.S. Trade Development Agency, the Appalachian Regional Commission, and the Economic Development Administration, among others.

Not to be outdone by Congress' budget timetable, the Office of Management and Budget began putting flesh on the bones of the reorganization idea President Obama broached in his Jan. 25 State of the Union Address.

"There are 12 different agencies that deal with exports," he said. "There are at least five different entities that deal with housing policy. Then there's my favorite example: The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they're in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they're in saltwater. And I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked."

Tough Sell

One's memory need delve back no further than the 1990s to recall that efforts at wholesale terminations and ambitious reorganization have been attempted before by Republicans in Congress and Democrats in the executive branch. Yet the number of agencies that actually died-one can mention perhaps ICC, the Interior Department's Bureau of Mines and Congress' Office of Technology Assessment-can be counted on the fingers of one bureaucrat's hand.

Why?

"Every agency and program serves political and symbolic purposes," says Donald Kettl, dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland. So "for every opponent of a program there's a proponent who comes out of the woodwork. And it's easier to stop something than it is to pursue something."

Agency employees themselves, understandably, always "argue that what they do is valuable," Kettl adds, "but it will sound like their primary interest is fighting for their own jobs." A notable exception was William Bennett, who as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities in the early 1980s called for its abolition.

Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University, says, "all streams lead to Capitol Hill" when it comes to winnowing government. "Each program has come from Congress, and there's nothing like a consolidation effort to bring out the mothers and fathers in great distress," he says. "Whether it's to defend their pet projects, or a desire for tighter control in a subcommittee, or in the appropriations process, it really brings out the parochialism."

Another reason talk of closing agencies produces more motion than results is that many in Congress seem out to mount more of a political show than a reasoned diagnosis of waste. "Organizations and structures exist for two reasons-to do the job and be seen doing the job," Kettl says. "So in creating programs and agencies or abolishing them, there's not a whole lot of stomach for getting into the weeds on how to make them work better, but there is tremendous pressure for having a scalp to put on the wall."

Newt Gingrich, when he was House Speaker in the mid-1990s, "simply took out the phone book and let his fingers do the walking," says Light, recalling the GOP's ill-fated plans to abolish such entities as the Corporation for National Service and the still-pending effort to sell off the National Helium Reserve.

Not all would-be executioners do their homework. A famous example is one-term Rep. Dick Chrysler, R-Mich., who at a House Science Committee hearing in 1995 argued that the nation no longer needed the National Weather Service, saying 85 percent to 90 percent of newspapers and TV and radio stations get their weather reports from private sector companies. The obvious reply, as Kettl notes, is to ask where these private companies get their data. And, of course, unlike the National Weather Service, the Weather Channel does not issue hurricane warnings.

'Ramming It Through'

When specific terminations are discussed in the context of broad strokes such as federal hiring freezes and percentage-based cuts, Kettl says, "the ice starts to melt in a minute." An example is oft-heard proposals to save money by reducing through attrition the number of air traffic controllers in certain towers. "I wouldn't get on a plane there," he laughs.

Politically, however, often the only way to get a plan through Congress is by "packaging a lot together and ramming it through to spread the pain across committees," as Light notes. "If you put a price tag on it, that will help it move forward," he says. "It won't be popular, but the Republicans may need something big to bite down on. You've got to do more than just rearrange the spark plugs; you've got to pull the engine out of the vehicle and see what's slowing you down."

Light points admiringly to the mother of all government reorganization efforts-the Hoover commission. Congress created the panel in 1947 under the official name of the Commission on Organization of the Executive Branch of the Government to reorganize federal operations for post-war America. Appointed by President Truman and led by former President Hoover, it had a sizable staff and convened numerous expert task forces. Its 273 recommendations, delivered in 19 reports, became the 1949 Reorganization Act, which prompted years of continuing implementation.

If today's reorganization were as thoughtful, Light says, the Obama administration would expand the definition of reorganization to include removing duplication and overlap. It could "flatten the hierarchy" by reducing the number of political appointments and "move more jobs from the mid-manager level to the front line, perhaps retraining people for new demands such as oil-rig inspections," he says, noting that mid-level jobs carry a higher price tag for agencies. With such delayering "you could get buy-ins from the unions and the Republican House," Light adds.

Lots of Little Decisions

One reason closings are not more common is "the immutability of the federal government," says Miriam Vincent, a staff attorney who works on the U.S. Government Manual for the Office of the Federal Register at the National Archives and Records Administration. "Given all it takes to get a basic decision out of a bureaucracy, this is a major decision with lots of little decisions attached, so it's easier to do other things first," she says. "It helps to have to have an outcome in mind, and then ask, 'Is this the best way to do it?' "

Agency closures and reorganizations tend to bunch around disasters, Vincent adds. She cites the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which resulted in the creation of the Homeland Security Department in 2003, and, more recently, the Gulf oil spill, which prompted the reorganization of the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service in 2010.

As an example of the complications, Vincent points to the Social Security program, which originally was run by an independent board in 1935 and then became part of a Roosevelt-era Cabinet agency called the Federal Security Agency. Then it became part of the Health, Education and Welfare (later the Health and Human Services) Department, and then independent again in 1995. Decades ago, she notes, the Social Security Administration managed the appeals by dissatisfied Medicare recipients before administrative law judges. But in 2003, Congress decided task should go to HHS under a new Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals. "You had to get everything switched over, and new appeals had to be filed with the new agency," Vincent says. "There was all that work in the pipeline, dealing with the employees, the buildings and infrastructure such as the logistics of setting up videoconference rooms for the hearings." In the end, she adds, the transition took two years.

Form vs. Function

Kettl points out that modern techniques for measuring agency performance-embodied in the Clinton-era Reinventing Government project and the recently updated Government Performance and Results Modernization Act-should improve decision-making about streamlining. It requires agencies to designate senior officials to serve as chief operating and performance improvement officers responsible for finding cost savings through elimination of redundant programs, all in the hope of moving the government from merely collecting and reporting data to implementing data-driven performance management.

"In abolishing agencies, you don't want to make your decisions by just counting the number of employees, or the number of departments," Kettl says. "Those are important symbols, but you have to look at the functions that the employees and the departments perform. Once we create a program, we also create expectations for implementing it well. We aren't telling ourselves the truth if we think we can score political points by pursuing symbolic cuts and at the same time think that we meet the promise of the programs without damage." The idea of sabotaging an agency by overloading it or starving it "only makes the public cynical," he adds.

Perhaps another sign that agencies die hard is the tendency of enthusiasts to push for their resurrection. Fifteen years after it was defunded (not technically abolished), the Office of Technology Assessment still retains a loyal network of alumni and fans in the scientific community, as evidenced by a 2009 essay in the progressive think tank journal Science Progress by Gerald Epstein titled, "Restart the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment." He argues that Congress defunded OTA on the faulty assumption that it benefited only scientists when in fact, he wrote, the chief beneficiaries of OTA's analysis of the state of science in a given area were Congress itself and the public.

The same could be said for the Bureau of Mines. The bureau's 1996 demise, sealed with the dismissal of 1,000 employees and dispersal of its functions across multiple agencies, was oddly accomplished via an appropriations bill. In May 2010, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., proposed re-establishing it, shortly after the West Virginia mine disaster that left 29 dead.

Fundamentally, Kettl says, "we can debate what it is we do well, but it's tough to decide what government shouldn't be doing any longer. So far, I haven't heard what that might be."


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