White House airs plan for leaner government

Posted: June 22, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

President Donald Trump holds a Cabinet meeting Thursday at which an overhaul of the federal government was proposed. He is flanked by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (left) and Defense Secretary James Mattis.

WASHINGTON -- The White House on Thursday announced a proposed overhaul of the federal government that would merge the Labor and Education departments, consolidate a slew of social safety-net programs under a renamed health agency and reorganize federal food-safety functions.

Labor and education programs would be merged into a new Department of Education and the Workforce, according to a plan released by the White House. The Department of Health and Human Services would be renamed the Department of Health and Public Welfare, to "better capture the nature of its programs," which would house nutrition assistance programs, the White House said.

The sweeping reorganization proposal, which was formally unveiled during President Donald Trump's Cabinet meeting Thursday, is the result of an order signed by Trump in March 2017 calling for a review of the federal government aimed at identifying redundancies and streamlining agencies. It's the latest in a long line of federal government overhaul proposals announced by administrations from both parties.

Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, pointed to the fact that there are currently more than 40 job-training programs spread across 16 Cabinet agencies -- just one of a list of examples he cited.

"If it's cheese pizza, it's FDA, but you put pepperoni on it and it becomes a USDA product. I mean, come on?" he said. "An open-faced roast beef sandwich is USDA, a closed-faced roast beef sandwich is FDA. Not making this up. You can't make this kind of stuff up. This would only happen in the government."

Many of the proposals would require congressional approval and are expected to face significant opposition from Democrats and some Republicans.

"This effort, along with the recent executive orders on federal unions, are the biggest pieces so far of our plan to drain the swamp," Mulvaney said in a statement.

"The federal government is bloated, opaque, bureaucratic, and inefficient," he added.

The streamlining plan includes some proposals that have long been discussed among groups that promote government efficiency. For example, federal economic assistance resources would be consolidated under a new Bureau of Economic Growth at the Department of Commerce.

The plan to consolidate the Labor and Education departments would allow the Trump administration to focus its efforts to train students in vocational skills in one place.

Education is the smallest Cabinet-level department in terms of employees, but Republicans have opposed the agency ever since it began operations in 1980. It was created during the administration of President Jimmy Carter, who wanted the nation to pay more attention to education. Trump picked an education secretary, Betsy DeVos, who has repeatedly expressed opposition to the existence of the department she heads.

The plan would also create a single food-safety agency under the Agriculture Department and move the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, from the USDA to the proposed Department of Health and Public Welfare, which would be focused more broadly on public-assistance programs.

Housing programs run by the USDA also would move to the Department of Housing and Urban Development and certain functions of the Army Corps of Engineers would be moved to the departments of transportation and interior.

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management's policy function would be moved into the Executive Office of the President, while background checks would move over to the Department of Defense.

Mulvaney said the plan was "not designed as a cost-saving" or as "a way to reduce the size of government" but said: "If efficiency drives you there, there's nothing wrong with that."

EFFICIENCY, COST PRODUCTIVE

Soon after he took office, Trump gave the Office of Management and Budget the task of coming up with a plan to reorganize the government and eliminate unnecessary agencies, pointing to redundancy and billions of dollars being wasted

"We will develop a detailed plan to make the federal government work better, reorganizing, consolidating and eliminating where necessary," Trump said last year after signing an executive order on the reorganization. "In other words, making the federal government more efficient and very, very cost productive."

But whether the proposal will prove effective is unclear.

Many of the changes would require approval from Congress and congressional leaders have been hesitant to adopt a plan that would eliminate federal agencies they oversee.

Even before the plan was announced, it was met with skepticism among lawmakers and labor unions. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said members of both parties in Congress had pushed back against Trump's proposals "to drastically gut investments in education, health care and workers -- and he should expect the same result for this latest attempt to make government work worse for the people it serves."

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, a union representing 1.7 million teachers and education professionals, said under normal circumstances combining the Education and Labor departments might make sense as a way of bringing together education and workforce development programs.

"But there is nothing normal about this administration, so we're extremely skeptical of the motivations here, given how hostile Betsy DeVos and President Trump have been to public education, workers and unions," Weingarten said.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which helps oversee the two departments that would be merged under the plan, said he was open to the changes. "I think it's always wise to look for greater efficiency in how our government operates and will study the proposal carefully," Alexander said.

Eliminating the Education Department has long been a goal of Republicans. President Ronald Reagan, for example, sought to eliminate the department during the 1980s but backed down after a lack of support in Congress.

And former Vice President Al Gore famously appeared on David Letterman's late-night show and held up an ashtray to demonstrate overlapping government functions.

"People are used to thinking nothing can change, but the American people are really upset with the way it operates now, it doesn't work, it's extremely wasteful," Gore said then. "There's bipartisan support for getting rid of all these wasteful procedures, cutting the wasteful spending and putting in a new approach that will make it work better and cost less."

The Office of Management and Budget's deputy director for management, Margaret Weichert, said the effort was focused on cases where agencies "are overlapping in responsibility, have fragmented responsibilities, where the customer service element is dispersed across agencies."

She cited the issue of endangered fish species like salmon, which she said is under the purview of different departments depending on where they're swimming, and poultry farmers dealing with different regulations for chickens and eggs.

"We're not at the beginning of the 21st century, we're 20 years in. But we don't have a government that meets the needs of the 21st century," Mulvaney said.

Information for this article was contributed by Lisa Rein of The Washington Post and by Jill Colvin and Ken Thomas of The Associated Press.

Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, explains the government reorganization plan Thursday.

A Section on 06/22/2018