Video

Will Trump’s Goal to Reorganize the Government Get Anywhere? Look to Congress

Roll Call Decoder with David Hawkings, wonky explainers from a Capitol Hill expert

President Donald Trump has some bold ambitions for restructuring the federal government. Roll Call senior editor David Hawkings looks back at how Trump’s reorganization plans compare to his predecessors’, who may or may not have had a willing partner in Congress.

Below is a transcript of the video.

HAWKINGS:

This summer, it’s President Trump’s turn to do what most of his predecessors have done at some point in their administrations — call for a big-time reorganization of the federal government.

Many of Trump’s ideas are bold. In many cases, they’re based on sound reasoning — and they could save taxpayers billions of dollars over time.

But the big and important ones require Congress to go along, and there’s almost no chance of that happening in the foreseeable future. Recent history helps us explain why.

Trump’s three biggest ideas?

He wants to merge the Education and Labor departments — to better transition students into the workforce.

He wants to move the food stamp program from the Agriculture Department to the Department of Health and Human Services where, you can argue, it’s a better fit.

And he wants to merge much of the Office of Personnel Management and the General Services Administration, the government’s HR and real estate bureaucracies, into a new Government Services Agency.

He and his budget director, Mick Mulvaney, make a solid case that these and other ideas would make the government run with more efficiency and at less cost.

But since there’s no world-shattering event or other political imperative to drive the ideas forward — and since Congress remains in a state of partisan paralysis that generally keeps it from coming to a deal on all but the most urgent crises — not much is going to happen.

It’s pretty easy to contrast this stuck state of affairs with the three biggest government reconfigurations since World War II, all of which were in some way driven by an urgent national security concern.

The start of the Cold War got members of both parties working with President Harry Truman in 1947 to create a more efficient and manageable foreign policymaking bureaucracy.

The result was a major restructuring of the military and intelligence agencies that remains largely in place today.

It streamlined and unified the nation’s military establishment by bringing together the Navy and the War departments — aka the Army in those days — creating a separate Air Force and making it all part of a new Department of Defense.

It set up the CIA to replace intelligence gathering by the military and the State Department — and also to carry out covert operations in foreign countries.

And it established the National Security Council to manage the increasing and complicated flow of diplomatic and spying information into the Oval Office.

Thirty years later, Jimmy Carter won the White House in the aftermath of Watergate largely on a campaign to reorganize government and make it work better.

But he ended up spending his political capital, with the help of a lopsidedly Democratic Congress, to add two new departments.

The Energy Department came first in 1977, largely on the strength of his argument that the design, construction, testing and protecting of the nation’s enormous nuclear weapons stockpile was a job for a civilian Cabinet secretary — and that person ought to have authority for handling the nation’s big-time domestic energy crisis, as well. 

Carter persuaded Congress to create the Department of Education in 1979, and it’s been controversial with conservatives ever since.

The political imperative for Congress to do something emphatic after the Sept. 11 attacks was what got the Department of Homeland Security off the ground in 2002 — combining all or parts of 22 federal agencies with a hand in countering terrorism.

But the newest Cabinet department had a surprisingly tough road to hoe. Unlike with Truman or Carter, George W. Bush resisted the idea of a new department, insisting for months that coordination should be handled inside the White House.

By the time he relented, the bipartisan surge of collaboration right after the attacks had faded, and the bill nearly foundered over the structure of the new department’s labor force.

Republicans charged that the Democrats wanted to tie the president’s hands and jeopardize national security in order to cater to organized labor.

Democrats countered that the administration was using homeland security as a smokescreen to gut civil service protection.

The midterm election of 2002 ended up settling the question. Republicans won big, and Bush got most of the flexibility on labor issues that he wanted.

This time, it’s tough to see the Democratic gains widely expected in this midterm doing anything to strengthen Trump’s hand at shrinking the bureaucracy.