The Corner

Let’s . . . um . . . reorganize the government!

What’s up with government reorganization? The day after the president made it a major theme of his State of the Union address, his press secretary acknowledged that the administration had not settled on a strategy for carrying out the plan or decided who would lead it. Apparently, the White House did not even touch base with public-employee unions. Federal Times quotes the head of one union: “I don’t know what he’s talking about when he says merge or reorganize agencies.”

There are two possible explanations for the absence of groundwork.

A) The president and his staff want an open-ended process in order to maximize participation by government workers, outside experts, and lawmakers from both parties.

B) The speechwriters needed a way to reconcile deficit reduction with expensive new policy proposals. One can imagine what they were thinking: “Freeze spending and subsidize high-speed rail? Hello? Sheesh, how do we make it to ‘God bless you and goodnight’ without whiplash? Wait a minute: Reorganization — that’s the ticket! We can provide more service at less cost by reducing redundancy, duplication, overlap, waste, fraud, abuse, yadda, yadda, yadda. Don’t know if it works, but it sounds deficit-reduction-y and shouldn’t tick anybody off.”

Having done a little bit of speechwriting, I’m guessing that the correct answer is B.

Whatever the explanation, one thing is clear: Government reorganization is not a new idea. One president spoke of “a reorganization of the [military] staff establishment with a view to render more distinct and definite the relations and responsibilities of its several departments. . . . There is room for improvements which will materially promote both economy and success.” That was from James Madison’s State of the Union message in 1812. Long before President Obama discovered the quirks of salmon regulation, other chief executives had noted that multiple organizations seemed to have similar tasks. In 1977, Jimmy Carter said: “Our preliminary review indicates that there are at least 41 separate agencies involved in police and investigative activities. Twelve separate agencies are conducting personnel background investigations; 36 separate agencies have guard duties or security forces, for a total cost per year of about $2.5 billion — I think about 164,000 employees in the District of Columbia area alone. There are 23 different federal police forces.”

Now, as then, there probably is room for greater administrative efficiency. That’s fine, but it would be delusional to think that reorganization can make more than a scratch in the deficit. And bureaucratic consolidation does not always work well. President Obama erred when he said that “the last major reorganization of the government happened in the age of black-and-white TV.” In fact, the last major reorganization was the 2002 law that crammed a bunch of agencies into the Department of Homeland Security. The troubled history of that department suggests that it might not be a good model for the rest of the government.

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