Why Trump’s government overhaul won’t work

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The executive order issued by President Donald Trump yesterday has a goal nearly every citizen and legislator would cheer: to “improve the efficiency, effectiveness and accountability of the executive branch.”

What’s not to like? The executive branch is an organizational basket case, and it sorely needs a rethink. For 238 years, citizen legislators and presidents have come to town with dreams of fixing public problems, hatching new agencies and programs to do it, many of which live long beyond the problem they were intended to solve. The slow aggregation of government initiatives has produced a $3.8 trillion per year government with at least 180 agencies. With each passing year, the government becomes more complex and incoherent — “kludgeocracy”, as political scientist Steven Teles termed it.

Trump’s critique is on target. There “is duplication and redundancy everywhere,” the president declared in his order. “Billions and billions of dollars are being wasted on activities that are not delivering results for hardworking American taxpayers, and not even coming close.”

But when it comes to the order itself — well, it’s hard to see how it has any chance of solving that problem. It instructs all agencies to examine their operations and draft plans for reorganization within 180 days. Mick Mulvaney, head of the Office of Management and Budget, must then take the agencies’ plans and work them into a master plan for government reorganization. In other words, Trump’s order makes reorganization an exercise for the executive branch on its own.

The problem is, it’s Congress that passes the laws that control most of government, and Congress that decides what to fund. The executive order, however, doesn’t mention Congress once. Under the order, Mulvaney can direct agencies to make changes “consistent with applicable law and subject to the availability of appropriations.” This guarantees it won’t amount to much — a tiny bit of bureaucratic fat here and there.

Much of the incoherence of the federal government is written into law, which a president cannot change on his own. To merge programs and agencies, or to meat-ax them entirely, requires Congress to act. Additionally, even programs and bureaus created under executive authority have interest groups, lobbyists, and legislators who fight for its survival. This “demosclerosis,” as Jonathan Rauch termed it, is on display every year as congressional members battle the president when he tries to zero out programs from the budget. The fact that $300 billion gets spent annually on activities not even authorized to be funded is a symptom of this problem.

For all the politics, federal reorganization is not impossible. Presidents have undertaken it before, with some real success. But the history is clear: For government reorganization to have any chance at working requires the president and Legislature to work together.

There are two tried and true ways for achieving this. First, Trump could ask Congress to revive and modify the reorganization authority afforded to presidents periodically between 1932 and 1984. That model has Congress grant the president authority to draft a reorganization plan within a period, then obliges him to submit that plan to Congress for an up-or-down vote. President Barack Obama sought similar authority in 2012, but was stymied by Republicans. The obvious advantage of this approach is that it empowers a president to go big in a hurry — he can abolish or rework entire agencies. Presidents from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan used this fast-track reorganization authority numerous times to flog the ungainly executive into shape, observed Ronald Moe of the Congressional Research Service.

Plainly, the downside of this reform is the Congress can never be sure what a president might propose. Allowing the president to make the first move inevitably puts legislators on the defense, beating back accusations that they are stodgy and protecting cronies.

The second way to achieve government reorganization is to establish a commission. This vehicle fosters cooperation between the executive and legislative branches, and the idea goes back a century. President William Taft lamented the confused state of the government in 1909. “No comprehensive effort has been made to list its multifarious activities or to group them in such a way as to present a clear picture of what the Government is doing. Never has a complete description been given of the agencies through which these activities are performed,” he wrote, asserting that nobody had ever really attempted to weed out redundant functions, or get agencies to work together efficiently. And this was the far smaller government of the early 1900s.

Taft asked for $100,000 from Congress to study reorganization and got it, along with an additional $160,000 over the following few years. Changing partisan control of Congress scuttled many of the reforms proposed by the president’s Commission on Economy and Efficiency, but its proposals for an executive budget eventually became law.

If Trump really wants to take this plan seriously, he’d look back to the first Hoover Commission, which operated under President Truman from 1947 to 1949. “Quite aside from the disposition of the war organization of the Government,” Truman stated, “other adjustments need to be made currently and continuously in the Government establishment.” The Hoover Commission was the gold standard for government reorganization, pairing the commission model with fast-track legislative authority. Not only was it congressionally funded, the commission had members of the executive and legislative branch on it. The president appointed four individuals (including Herbert Hoover as chairman), as did the Senate president pro tempore and the House speaker. Half the appointees were Democrats, the rest Republicans. The commission had dozens of staff, and leveraged a few hundred outside experts in the course of examining the executive branch and recommending reorganizational proposals.

In two years, the Hoover commission came up with 273 proposed reforms, more than 100 of which were enacted during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. Government sprawl was tamed, albeit temporarily. So much got done because the commission gave legislators and the president skin in the game. Both could claim credit for modernizing the government.

In taking on the federal government, there’s no question Trump has a fat target to aim at. Every year, the Government Accountability Office releases a thick report detailing the hundreds of ways government can reduce fragmentation, duplication and overlap in its activities. Last autumn, a Senate report tallied $87 billion in recommendations for reform suggested by inspectors general. Some of these recommendations get implemented, but most do not.

Trump is starting the process yet again, basically asking his agencies to review themselves, and then fix what they can fix. They might start by fixing the plan itself. He revised his executive order on visa vetting after a public outcry about its shortcomings. Hopefully, he will do the same with his executive order to reorganize the government. We do need a better organized, more efficient executive branch. We just won’t get it from a White House going it alone.


 

Image by Evan El-Amin

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