President Obama said he wants to reduce the size of the federal government. But does he mean it?
There's nothing bipartisan in an election year. So when President Obama last week sought Republican cooperation with his plan to streamline the federal government you can be sure he was setting a political trap in which he hopes to snare his political foes.
But since politics and policy are so inextricably intertwined, Obama's request for authority to combine various government agencies deserves a respectful hearing, however disingenuous his request may be.
The federal government is a leviathan, sprawling wildly from coast to coast with duplicative, inefficient agencies that cost a fortune to operate. Presidents for decades have promised to try to fix the problems, but rarely had much success.
When Jimmy Carter was running for president 35 years ago, one of the most prominent planks in his platform was a complete reorganization of the executive branch of government. It didn't happen, and one of the reasons it didn't happen was that Carter's fellow Democrats who controlled the House and Senate didn't want it to happen.
It wasn't that they weren't politically sympathetic to Carter, it's that they were most interested in preserving their own political power and didn't want to lose influence by losing congressional oversight of reorganized executive branch agencies.
When Obama talks about Republican cooperation, he's intentionally ignoring the fact that his fellow Democrats control the Senate and that they may be no more interested in any reorganization than the Republicans who control the House.
It's not just members of Congress who will stand in opposition. No sooner had Obama made his announcement than the Natural Resources Defense Council registered its dissent with respect to Obama's plan to move the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from the Commerce Department to the Interior Department because of fears that such a transfer would reduce its influence and duties.
Nonetheless, the idea of reorganization, even the small one suggested by Obama, has merit. Why does the federal government have six business and trade agencies, five bureaus that oversee housing and run in the double figures for organized groups of bureaucrats who supposedly oversee food safety and job training?
That's the kind of madness one only finds in government or bankrupt businesses.
That morass exists because it was in some individuals' or entities' interest to create it. And it will be in their interest to protect it from change.
Obama is seeking carte blanche from Congress to prepare a reorganization plan. That's likely to create friction from the start because Congress is more likely to oppose recommendations it was denied a role in creating.
Under the Obama plan, Congress would be barred from making any changes in the final proposal, would be required to hold a simple up-or-down vote on accepting it and be compelled to take action within 90 days of its submission.
That ought to put the issue on the front page right around Election Day, making it timely for Obama to use as a political club against the Republicans. Coincidence? Absolutely not.
President Reagan is the last president who had the authority Obama is seeking. Presidents Clinton, and Bushes I and II each have sought similar authority without success. Now Obama is making a similar request, and there's no reason to think he'll have much more success than his three predecessors did in seeking congressional dispensation to start moving the building blocks around.
A more fruitful approach would be to create a joint task force between the legislative and executive branches of government to address this obvious problem. There would be no guarantees about the result, but the chances for a good-faith effort would be greatly improved.