Obama reorganization plan alive but not necessarily well

Susan Walsh/AP
President Obama devoted a portion of a recent campaign speech in Cleveland to talking up his request, formalized in January, for revived legislative authority to consolidate duplicative agencies and programs.

“I’ve asked Congress for the authority to reorganize the federal government that was built for the last century -- I want to make it work for the 21st century,” he said last week, calling for “a federal government that is leaner and more efficient and more responsive to the American people.”

And though several Democratic senators are preparing to move on the draft legislation the White House sent over this spring, election-year pressures and skepticism among House Republicans could derail this effort to streamline certain federal departments.

Building on a promise made in his State of the Union Address in January 2011, Obama early this year asked Congress to renew executive branch authority -- first granted in the 1930s but taken away from President Reagan in the 1980s -- to merge six agencies to achieve greater efficiency and to make them more responsive to citizens and outside interests.

Obama proposed consolidating commerce and trade-related agencies, including the Small Business Administration and the Export-Import Bank, expecting to eliminate 1,000-2,000 federal jobs through attrition and save $3 billion over 10 years.

Since January, the administration has pushed the effort through meetings with members and staff from both congressional chambers and both parties. The White House also launched a related crossagency website, BusinessUSA.gov, sent Controller Danny Werfel to testify at a Senate hearing and promoted the plan in an op-ed in Politico authored by acting budget director Jeffrey Zients and Business Roundtable chief John Engler, the former Republican governor of Michigan.

“Eliminating wasteful duplication and unnecessary bureaucratic barriers is something members of both parties can agree on -- and we are urging the Hill to pass the president’s reform proposal to reinstate reorganization authority,” said Office of Management and Budget spokeswoman Moira Mack in a recent email to Government Executive.

But Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, after initially expressing sympathy toward the president’s goals, may have turned sour. Asked to comment on prospects for the administration’s request, a spokesman sent a plaintive statement from Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., chairman of the Oversight Federal Workforce Subcommittee.

“If the Obama administration is serious about advancing its proposal, it has not shown it,” Ross said. “Since the committee’s Feb. 28 hearing, the White House Office of Management and Budget has failed to respond to the committee’s standing request for additional information on its vague proposal. The administration must offer more than a short white paper to show that its ‘consolidation’ plans would actually reduce bureaucracy or save any money at all.”

Republicans may also be responding to a variety of business groups -- the Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers among them -- who announced in January that they opposed any recasting of trade agencies that failed to preserve the stature of the U.S. Trade Representative.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, who introduced the Obama bill (S. 2129) along with Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said through a spokeswoman that he “hopes to mark up the legislation before the end of the summer.”

Warner also expects the panel to take up the bill soon. “Everything must be on the table to reduce our long-term debt and that includes reforming the way our government works,” he said in an email. “Restoring a president’s ability to target duplication and overlap within the federal government is an important tool, and that’s why I co-sponsored the Reforming and Consolidating Government Act of 2012.”

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., who chairs the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services and International Security, said in an email Monday that the Obama “proposal strikes the right balance in streamlining federal operations while improving government performance, and in doing so has the potential to save billions of dollars. I’ve been saying for years now that we need to look in every nook and cranny of the federal government to find savings, and this administration continues to be a good partner with me and other members of Congress who are zealous in our pursuit of reforms that will help the government do more with less.”

Max Stier, president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, predicted consideration of the bill would be pushed into 2013. “We’re now in the political silly season, so there’s a lot not happening in this election season with such a great deal of partisanship, and it would be surprising to see movement,” he said.

“There is bipartisan agreement that we need to do government differently, as the demands change and the budget pressures increase,” Stier added, citing as examples proposals to reform federal compensation and the confirmation process. “There’s agreement on the need, but disagreement on the specifics.”

At least part of the impetus for Obama’s request for reorganization authority came from the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress. In June 2011, it published a report on reorganization titled “Six Lessons From the 1970s,” in which the authors drew from the Carter administration’s creation of the Energy and Education departments as well as the 1978 civil service reform.

The lessons included the need for clear goals, investment of political capital by the president, selling the plan within the executive branch, overcoming resistance on Capitol Hill, enlisting external allies while factoring in the views of opponents, and organizing management of the reorganization effort.

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