The federal government currently boasts no fewer than 47 job-training programs, housed at the Departments of Education, Labor, Agriculture, Interior, Justice, and . . . well, you get the point. The Department of Commerce regulates salmon in the ocean, but the Department of the Interior reigns when the fish head up a river, and to do that the creatures might swim up a “fish ladder” governed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. When it comes to prepackaged foods, the FDA regulates open-faced roast-beef sandwiches, but the USDA handles roast-beef sandwiches with two slices of bread.
Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, put it best during a recent cabinet meeting last Thursday: “This makes no sense.” He was introducing an ambitious proposal to realign the federal bureaucracy for the 21st century, to shed the old inefficiencies of a behemoth built for a modern age that has since passed. The plan advances an understanding of government’s role in society suited for contemporary life, one that could have reverberating implications even after this president leaves office — if the White House puts political muscle behind it.
There are several headline-grabbing proposals embedded in the 127-page, 32-point document presenting the plan, among them one to merge the Departments of Labor and Education into a new “Department of Education and the Workforce” (the idea being that these two departments already serve the same purpose of preparing people for work). Other large, structural changes include the consolidation of food-safety programs under the USDA, the privatization of the U.S. Postal Service, and the consolidation of some entitlement programs currently housed at USDA under the Department of Health and Human Services — which would be renamed the “Department of Health and Public Welfare.”
However, several less widely reported ideas also deserve attention, as they would achieve the bipartisan aim of streamlining and adapting the bureaucracy for the digital age. These include a push to end paper recordkeeping by the end of 2022 and a standardization of cybersecurity-personnel recruitment. Another standout initiative sees the creation of a public-private research center that relies on experts, academics, and industry to reassess government’s functions in a new economy marked by automation, big data, and a new style of “customer” interactions with bureaucracy. These “leaner” proposals might actually have a larger impact than the big-ticket items.
But how much of this is actually feasible, given that Republicans lack a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate?
It’s difficult to imagine Congress acting on the proposed department mergers by the midterm elections, and it’s yet more difficult to imagine a Democratic House privatizing the Postal Service.
“I can understand where they’re coming from, with an eye on what they can do as an administration,” says Rachel Greszler, a Heritage Foundation research fellow who contributed to the think tank’s 2017 “Blueprint for Reorganization.” While the Heritage plan is sometimes cited as an inspiration for the OMB proposal, the former focuses primarily on changing the array of cabinet-level departments, while the latter places somewhat more emphasis on modernization and technological solutions to organizational challenges. As a result, at least some parts of the OMB plan can be accomplished through executive action.
Federal agencies are created and organized by statute, though, and significant reforms typically require the assent of Congress. Greszler is therefore only “cautiously optimistic” of the administration’s ability to enact its program. She also notes the minefield of institutional interests arrayed against change — even reforms that have bipartisan support.
The administration, understandably, is more optimistic. OMB deputy director Margaret Weichert describes a proposal drawn up in response to declining public trust in government institutions with the intention of overhauling a system “aligned to a different time.” She hopes to “do the business of government better, cheaper, faster.” However, she also frankly acknowledges the winding road ahead: “It’s extremely unlikely and imprudent to pursue all of these proposals at the same time.”
Weichert fondly draws a parallel to Ronald Reagan’s quest for a limited government; while it was 15 years before Bill Clinton declared that “the era of big government is over,” the Gipper set America on track for later decentralization. Today, the Trump administration’s aim is to set America on a trajectory of precision governance by a bureaucracy not necessarily smaller, as Weichert said during a hearing on the proposal Wednesday, but better suited to providing services.
Though Weichert says the administration “wanted to create a comprehensive whole-of-government reform, not a piecemeal one,” the end result is a whole-of-government vision that will be implemented in a piecemeal fashion. The transfer of federal-employee background checks from OMB to the Defense Department, for instance, is already underway. Weichert says conversations about enacting other components of the reform agenda will take place over the next few months, resulting, most likely, in executive orders by the end of the summer.
But other obstacles will persist; it’s difficult to imagine Congress acting on the proposed department mergers by the midterm elections, and it’s yet more difficult to imagine a Democratic House privatizing the Postal Service. At Wednesday’s hearing Weichert described a process that would take place over the next three to five years.
It’s a visionary plan, but it might well be suffocated by the system it seeks to fix.
Moreover, such a comprehensive proposal, while refreshingly ambitious, necessarily holds weaknesses and remains open to criticism — and the president’s opponents certainly aren’t shy to voice these. During Wednesday’s hearing, members of Congress raised issues from slightly irrelevant pontificating — the non-appointment of nominees to several ambassadorships is a problem, but not germane to the debate on government reform — to highly pertinent criticisms regarding the direction of entitlement programs under the plan. Some Democrats worried that the proposal could serve as a pretext to slash social programs, while Republicans asked why the future of family-assistance programs shouldn’t reside with the states through block grants, rather than with a new federal welfare agency.
For her part, Aubrey Neal, federal-affairs manager at the R Street Institute and an enthusiastic supporter of the plan, believes “the criticisms are not only exciting, but should be welcomed.” She thinks the unfurling debate is an opportunity for Congress to participate in the conversation as the executive branch seeks to clean its own house. Indeed, Congress will have plenty of chances to say its piece, during future hearings and throughout the reform process.
However, there is no chance the package will be enacted in full, and there is little chance that it will end up comprehensively overhauling American governance. When asked whether she thinks this plan will begin a Reaganesque, generation-long revolution, Greszler responds with a flat “No. I think that’s the ideal, but there’s so much resistance.” However, she readily notes its potential to partially streamline the federal government, especially in terms of personnel management and leveraging technology to solve problems, depending on the White House’s focus on making it happen.
The reform principles articulated by the OMB last week are many things: ambitious, comprehensive, bold. What they are not is fully actionable. They comprise a set of noble goals and deserve the full attention and heft of the president’s bully pulpit toward their implementation — it’s too bad they won’t likely receive it in the current political environment. At the very least, though, targeted executive orders will begin taming the American bureaucratic thicket and shaping it for the digital age. It’s a visionary plan, but it might well be suffocated by the system it seeks to fix.