Obama's proposal: How will it shrink the government?

Jan 13, 2012

President Obama will ask Congress on Friday for the power to consolidate parts of the federal government, proposing a first step of combining several trade- and commerce-related agencies under a plan that the White House said could eliminate more than 1,000 jobs and save $3 billion over 10 years.

Chat with Ed O'Keefe about Obama's plan, how it is supposed to work, what it means for federal workers and more.

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Read: Obama to propose combining agencies to shrink federal government

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Is Obama going to create a whole new department of the federal government?

Those details aren't 100 percent clear at this hour, but it does appear that the White House would like to strip some responsibilities out of the Commerce Department and merge them with other disparate trade and commerce agencies and bureaus. Other elements of the Commerce Department might also be moved.

Jeffrey D. Zients, the deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, told reporters this morning that the White House would like to move NOAA -- the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -- out of Commerce and make it part of the Interior Department.

Stay tuned.

How were the Economic Development Administration, the International Trade Administration, and the International Trade Commission left out of this group of six?

These three agencies do not appear to be involved in the reorganization.

Why did Obama chose these departments to consolidate?

Obama campaigned on the promise of making the federal government more efficient and if these ideas were to ever be implemented, they certainly would make at least one bit of the federal government slightly leaner and meaner.

He proposed consolidating trade and commerce responsibilties in this State of the Union address last year, noting that salmon is regulated by multiple federal entitites.

Further examples of redundancies were exposed in a widely-read Government Accountability Office report released in March. It found that more than 100 federal programs deal with surface transportation issues, 82 monitor teacher quality, 80 deal with economic development, 47 for job training, 20 offices or programs devoted to homelessness and 17 different grant programs for disaster preparedness.

Another 15 agencies or offices handle food safety, and five are working to ensure the federal government uses less gasoline, GAO said.

So you get the idea.

"Washington is broken" is a phrase you hear often from Americans, right? So the White House is trying to capitalize on those sentiments.

Is this a typical thing for a President to do?  When is the last time this has happened?

A great question, and I wrote on this subject this morning: Government reorganizations aren't pretty.

Is this the first step toward a massive overhaul of all agencies, or do you think this is designed just to appease the folks who think "something should be done"?

It's more of the latter, but certainly Obama and many of the people he works with would love to completely overhaul the federal structure -- as did many presidents and government employees before them.

Does this mean a lot of federal workers are about to lose their jobs?  Who will be affected the most?

Our undestanding is that this could affect about 1,000 to 3,000 jobs, but that the eliminations would come mostly through attrition.

As my colleagues and I have written on several occasions in recent days, dozens of federal agencies are offering early buyouts and early retirements to eligible employees as a way to trim the payroll and save taxpayer money.

What is/was the GOP response to this?  This seems like something that they would want to do themselves, but since it's coming from Obama, will they resist it?  If so, on what grounds?

So far, the GOP response has been tepid.

“After presiding over one of the largest expansions of government in history, and a year after raising the issue in his last State of the Union, it’s interesting to see the President finally acknowledge that Washington is out of control,” said Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.). Stewart said McConnell’s office will review the details of the plan once the White House provides them.

From Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and a chief GOP critic of Obama:

“I stand ready to work with President Obama on proposals to reorganize federal agencies,”  said Chairman Issa.  “While I have been disappointed that the White House has not embraced earlier bipartisan Congressional efforts seeking collaborative engagement on proposals to reorganize government, I hope this announcement represents the beginning of a sincere and dedicated effort to enact meaningful reforms.”

From Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), ranking member on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee -- which handles government management: “There is no shortage of agencies and programs ripe for streamlining and eliminating duplication to save money and improve service,” said Senator Collins. “After all, especially in this difficult fiscal climate, Americans should only pay for something once, not dozens of times.

"The Department of Commerce, a catch-all department of programs ranging from weather to the census to trade, is one place to start. I will carefully review the President’s consolidation proposal.  As a former New England Administrator of the Small Business Administration (SBA), I want to make sure that the President's plan does not make it more difficult for small businesses to access SBA's loan guarantees and assistance programs.

“I have long maintained that wasteful duplication is a serious problem across the federal government.  Just consider the irony of 56 different programs, across 20 different agencies, which are in some way trying to improve the financial literacy of the American people.

“I hope that the President's reorganization plans prove to be effective in saving tax dollars, eliminating duplication, and improving service.  I will scrutinize them with those goals in mind."

Do you see Obama going up in the polls after this announcement?

I doubt this specific policy proposal would increase the president's poll numbers, but it does help address concerns about how the government can help bolster the economy and create jobs.

Is this going to make the government smaller? Or will it just make two departments (Treasury and Commerce) into one super-department? Is this going to involve layoffs?

It is expected to involve cutting jobs through attrition, according to the White House.

But it won't make much of a dent in the size of government. The White House says the proposed change would save $3 billion over the next decade -- a paltry sum compared to the overall size of the federal budget.

First Obama spends all of our money (that we don't have) and then he turns around and does in the name of saving money. I thought he was using the philosophy "You have to spend money to make money."  And the timing of this announcement just seems way too convenient with the election coming up.  Does his decision to do this show a new approach he's taking to running the economy?  Is it too little too late?

The timing can certainly be tied to the election season: Obama has had these ideas in hand since at least June, but, as we report today, administration officials blame the delay on last spring's government shutdown plans and the summer's acrimonious debate over the federal debt.

From your article: “The government we have is not the government we need,” Zients said during a briefing for reporters before Obama’s announcement. “The last major reorganization of the whole government was done more than half a century ago by Herbert Hoover. Since then, agencies have been layered on top. Rarely has an agency been downsized or eliminated.” 
What a short institutional memory. The Homeland Security Act of 2002, signed by George W. Bush, merged 22 separate federal agencies and cut thousands of jobs.- Post commenter

Yes "DPoniatowki," you're correct. The White House is quite selective with its government reorganization history.

But remember that the DHS reorganization was forced by outside circumstances. The reorganizations Zients refers to are more structural and less driven by world events.

Redundancy may be inefficient, but doesn't a certain amount of overlapping responsibility protect the public -- against, say, agencies that become too beholden to the industries they regulate? Yes, I know the real answer is to keep that from happening, but we don't seem to be able to do that.

Sure, some redundancies can't hurt, and help serve very specific purposes within a larger goal, but I refer you to that GAO report I referenced in a previous answer as an example of how large and bloated the federal government has become. Do we really need 80 different federal offices dealing with surface transportation issues?

The Post listed SBA, USTR, EXIM, OPIC, and TDA. What is the sixth agency to be consolidated?

The sixth is the Commerce Department's core trade and commerce functions.


This looks more like Obama eliminating one department he doesn't agree with, while leaving the rest of the agencies pretty much alone. 
1,000 jobs over 10 years? He's got a long way to go. 
He needs to provide some of the "strategic focus" that he gave the defense department to the rest of the Federal government, with commensurate budget cuts. - Post commenter Benson

One person's opinion...

That link didn't work.

Sorry about that, here's the link again:

Federal Eye: Government reorganizations aren't easy


If Obama groups these agenecies together, if a Republican gets elected President, can't they just undo that? Would they?

Yes, they could. Whether they not or will is a question worth asking them.

Folks, that's all for now. Thanks for submitting your queries, and keep tabs on the changes through my blog, The Federal Eye.


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Ed O'Keefe
Staff writer Ed O'Keefe writes The Post's Federal Eye blog.
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