White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney last week pressed Cabinet members on the need to reorganize federal agencies and then mocked the “byzantine nature of the way that we regulate in this country.”
His down-home examples about safe processing of pizza and roast-beef sandwiches suggest that there is low-hanging fruit—or easy pickings among quick steps to reduce redundancy and duplication.
But the record on past efforts at streamlining to achieve efficiency shows how reformers run aground on feuds between turf-conscious lawmakers, industry influence on scientific agencies and the cultural complexity of reorganizing a workforce with long-standing habits.
» Get the best federal news and ideas delivered right to your inbox. Sign up here.
“If you make a cheese pizza, it’s governed by the Food and Drug Administration,” Mulvaney told President Trump and the Cabinet. “If you put a pepperoni on it, that’s governed by [the Agriculture Department]. If you have a chicken, it’s governed by the USDA. If that chicken lays an egg, it’s governed by the [Food and Drug Administration]. But if you break the egg and make it into an omelet, that is now covered again by the USDA. If you have open-face roast beef sandwich, that’s one or the other. But you put the bread on top of it, it’s the other one.”
Mulvaney then named as a favorite example: “If you have a saltwater fish . . . a salmon, and it’s in the ocean, it’s governed by the Department of Commerce. Once it swims up river, it’s governed by the Department of Interior. And to get there, it has to go up a fish ladder governed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This is stupid. This makes no sense.”
Perhaps wary of offending, the budget director, who’s been trumpeting reorganization for the past 15 months, assured the gathered that he wasn’t belittling the capabilities of the cited agencies. Moving food safety from FDA to USDA should be done “because they’re really good at it,” he said. “It’s not to say the FDA isn’t, but wouldn’t it be nice to have one place where people can go to, to get answers, to get results, to get permits, and to deal with regulatory affairs?”
Observers quickly noted that Mulvaney’s salmon example sounded familiar. That’s because it was used by President Barack Obama in his 2011 State of the Union Address (delivered just weeks after Mulvaney was sworn into the House of Representatives). “The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they're in freshwater, but the Commerce Department handles them when they're in saltwater,” Obama said in pushing for his own reorganization authority that Congress never granted. “I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked." (Obama later said he’d heard the reason for the split authority on salmon was President Nixon retaliating against an Interior secretary for criticizing his Vietnam war policies.)
Mulvaney’s repetition of the Obama anecdote was noted by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Twitter. But his agency had already been teaming up with Mulvaney to make such reorganizations happen.
Zinke greeted the Trump reorganization plan with a statement noting that Interior would gain the Commerce Department’s National Marine Fisheries Service and aspects of the Army Corps of Engineers, while transferring some environmental cleanup programs to the Environmental Protection Agency. By bringing the fisheries service into the Fish and Wildlife Service, Zinke said, Interior would “consolidate the administration of the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act into one agency within Interior. This merger would also combine the services' science and management capacities, resulting in more consistent federal fisheries and wildlife policy and improved service to the public, particularly on infrastructure permitting,” he said.
The moves strengthen Zinke's plan to reorganize Interior along common regional boundaries and “by taking a more collaborative government approach,” a department statement read.
‘Truckloads of Collaboration’ Needed
Reorganizing the federal bureaucracy would for the most part require legislation from Congress as well as consultation with industry and states and local governments. The Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, for example, released one of the first statements reacting to the Mulvaney plan. “We are looking forward to working with the administration in conducting efficient and effective conservation in the states,” said its president Virgil Moore, who is also director of Idaho Fish and Game. “We trust our federal partners will reach out to state fish and wildlife agencies as true partners in managing fish and wildlife on the American landscape.”
Getting the affected committees in Congress to go along would be a tall order, according to Government Executive interviews with specialists. “I don’t care what agency would move from one Cabinet agency to another, the jurisdiction on the Hill has to be sorted out,” said Dale Moore, vice president of public affairs at the American Farm Bureau Federation, which lobbies on farm issues. “Committees work very diligently to protect their turf, and it takes an act of Congress if not multiple acts, and truckloads of collaboration by committees to sort it out.”
The pizza issue goes back to the 1980s and early ‘90s, Moore recalls, when he was working for then-Rep. Pat Roberts, now a Republican senator from Kansas. Pizza Hut wanted its frozen pizzas in the school lunch program. The FDA regulated pizzas that contained a certain amount of meat, he said, but USDA handled the lunch program. “Sometimes there’s competition,” Moore said, and “a little bit of venue shopping,” by industry people who prefer working with some agencies over others.
Moore sees irony in the fact that centralization of food safety regulating has more often been a goal of liberals, such as Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., an ideological opposite of Mulvaney. The problem in the past was that Agriculture secretaries were willing to give up some authority only in discussions after they left office.
An example of a compromise came when the Homeland Security Department was created in 2002. Moore was working at USDA at the time, and recalls a proposal to move the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service from Agriculture to the new security department. The DHS planners, however, did not want to deal with specific plant and animal diseases, only with the function of border inspections. So the agency was split.
On salmon, there are complexities not readily apparent, Moore added. Farm-raised salmon operate in a different kind of controlled environment than wild-caught fish, and if the fish are beyond territorial waters in international waters, then there are yet other agencies involved, he noted. It is the nature of the issue that USDA, EPA and FDA “all have part of that jurisdiction.”
Today’s “jurisdictional lines don’t make a lot of sense,” acknowledged Sarah Sorscher, deputy director of regulatory affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “A lot of that is historical accident and not scientific rationale.”
On the other hand, “Sometimes there are good reasons why we have different agencies handle a problem,” she added. If it seems odd that the FDA regulates whole eggs while the USDA regulates liquid eggs, USDA does the grading. “The agencies do have their own expertise,” Sorscher noted. “USDA is really good at understanding the risks of pathogens during the [meat] slaughter process. And they have enough resources and requirements that they be at facilities every day, which makes them faster at identifying and recalling food.”
The FDA, by contrast, “is required to visit high-risk facilities only once every three years—which is just terrifying from a food safety perspective,” she added. “The FDA is better at discussing food additives and chemicals.” And the FDA, unlike Agriculture, “does not have a dual purpose of being a proponent for the industry—it has more independence.”
The fate of the reorganization plan might also depend on the politics of the decision makers. “We have long advocated for a stand-alone food safety agency,“ Sorscher said, “But a key part was that it be independent. Our concern would be making sure that this announcement and steps to make it happen are motivated by public health interests and not by some sort of political agenda,” she said.
Such changes should be done by an “administration that is thoughtful, good at managing details, respectful of the important job federal regulators do, and capable of working collaboratively with Congress and agencies to make it successful,” Sorscher added. “Those are traits and skills this administration has not necessarily shown.”