In June, the Trump administration released the most far-reaching plan for government reorganization in many years. The plan is ambitious and credible, and includes some compelling proposals that deserve to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, absent a major change in tactics by the administration, most of this agenda won’t be considered in Congress, much less passed by it.
Politically controversial legislation usually requires bipartisan cooperation to pass, and remaking much of the federal bureaucracy is certainly controversial. But instead of cultivating an environment in which his agenda can get a hearing among some Democrats, the president and his team have exacerbated partisan tensions to the point that it is nearly impossible to get bipartisan support for anything other than routine appropriation bills.
Despite the long odds that important components of the reorganization plan will be put into effect, the administration deserves some credit for producing a proposal at all. It probably took countless hours of internal negotiations, given that it would upend the roles of so many federal agencies and offices. Many outside observers, this author included, were dubious the administration would ever be able to get a plan out the door. We were proven wrong.
The reorganization plan calls for several sensible shifts in federal agency responsibilities. The headline ideas are to combine the Departments of Education and Labor into a new Department of Education and the Workforce, and to transfer the nutrition assistance programs (mainly the Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Health and Human Services, which would, in turn, be renamed the Department of Health and Public Welfare. The plan calls for many other changes, including: moving the FDA’s food safety role to the Department of Agriculture; combining the federal economic statistics agencies in the Department of Commerce; and downsizing the role of the Office of Personnel Management.
All of these ideas have merit, especially the proposed reorganization of the Labor and Education departments. The federal government has never had much success supporting workforce training through the Department of Labor. Meanwhile, the Pell Grant program in the Department of Education is a far more flexible means of helping students secure the education they think they need to improve their employment prospects. Much of Pell Grant funding pays for educational services that could easily come under the heading of workforce training. Given the changing demands of the modern workplace, rethinking how the many various programs of both departments interact with each other is long overdue.
It also makes sense to house SNAP, which plays an important role in providing income support to lower income households, in the Department of Health and Human Services alongside related programs like Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
Difficult as it undoubtedly was to pull together a plan like this, it will much more difficult to get even half of it through a Congress that is institutionally attached to the status quo.
What could the Trump administration do to get most Republicans as well as some Democrats interested in this reorganization agenda? It might want to study how President Truman succeeded with the most far-reaching government reforms in the post-war era.
The key to Truman’s success was his partnership with former Republican President Herbert Hoover, who chaired the Commission on the Organization of the Executive Branch of the Government (popularly known as the Hoover Commission). The commission was charged with making recommendations for reorganizing the government, and also with finding a legislative vehicle that would allow the reorganization to occur.
After Truman surprised the world and won reelection in 1948, Hoover abandoned his previous efforts to use the commission to call for a general downsizing of the federal government. Instead he recommended reorganizing the existing functions of government, so that they would be carried out in a more efficient and effective manner. This shift meant Truman could form an effective bipartisan partnership with Hoover that proved instrumental in securing the necessary Republican support in Congress to move the reorganization plans forward.
A key feature of the Truman-Hoover effort was the delegation of fairly broad reorganization authority to the president, based on the plans the Hoover Commission had assembled. The president was given the authority to unilaterally recommend reorganizing government agencies. His orders would go into effect unless blocked by either the House or Senate using what was then known as a “legislative veto” (The Supreme Court somewhat belatedly ruled the legislative veto was unconstitutional in a case decided in 1983.) Truman used the authority granted to him to submit 41 separate reorganization plans to Congress, of which 30 went into effect. Congress also passed its own versions of separate reorganization plans, which Truman also signed into law.
No president since 1984 has had the same broad reorganization authority delegated to him. President Obama requested it in 2012, as did President George W. Bush in 2003, but Congress rejected both requests.
If President Trump is to have any hope of making progress on his reorganization agenda, he needs to find his own Hoover on the Democratic side. That’s the starting point for getting a hearing for his ideas. If administration officials are willing to make some concessions, they might find Democrats open to discussing government reorganization, which, after all, is not a terribly ideological topic.
Given the deep divisions between the parties, the administration’s reorganization agenda will probably be ignored in Congress even if the administration tries to broaden the plan’s appeal. The best hope for avoiding that fate is to copy the Truman-Hoover model, which means giving up some control of the agenda to a bipartisan commission charged with producing consensus reorganization recommendations and with petitioning Congress for circumscribed reorganization authority to implement the agreed-upon reforms. Despite the long odds, this approach is worth trying. It just might lead to surprising breakthroughs and begin to rationalize a federal bureaucracy badly in need of modernization.
James C. Capretta is a RealClearPolicy Contributor and a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.