Bloated Federal Agencies Have Become the Norm. Here’s the Key to Sizing Them Down.
John York /
In March, President Donald Trump issued an executive order to spur a comprehensive reorganization of the executive branch.
It instructed each federal department head to submit a plan to improve “efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability” by June 30. Think tanks and members of the general public were also encouraged to submit plans.
The administration is now considering ways to combine and implement the best suggestions it received.
While there is much the White House can do alone, thorough executive reorganization will eventually demand congressional action.
But while members of Congress may agree in principle that the bloated and Byzantine bureaucracy needs reform, concrete plans often run into fierce opposition from congressmen and senators who stand to lose federal jobs in their district or see agencies stripped from the jurisdiction of the committees they sit on.
For thorough reform, Congress must avoid the siren song of parochial interests and professional ambition.
One way to do this is for Congress to create an independent commission to draft a plan whose eventual recommendations would be difficult to amend or to block. In so doing, Congress, like Odysseus tied to the mast, would bind itself to follow the right course in the face of temptation.
The Need for Executive Reorganization
Reorganizing the executive bureaucracy is a critical step to draining the swamp, as Trump pledged to do on the campaign trail.
Part of what makes the bureaucracy so unresponsive, ineffective, and profligate is its structure. Senseless fragmentation of authority, duplication of labor, and overlapping responsibility turns even the simplest functions of government into a veritable Rube Goldberg machine.
Take, for instance, food safety inspection.
Two agencies—the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and the Food and Drug Administration—share most of the responsibility for food safety inspection. The FDA inspects shelled eggs while the USDA inspects liquid, frozen, and dehydrated eggs.
The FDA inspects all fish except catfish, which are under the USDA’s purview. Closed-faced sandwiches and bagel dogs are in the USDA’s bailiwick, while open-faced sandwiches and corndogs are left to the FDA.
Such fragmentation, duplication, and overlap is a widespread problem. A 2017 Government Accountability Office report identified 395 examples of these structural problems. The Government Accountability Office estimates that if Congress addressed all such instances it identified, it would save the American taxpayer tens of billions of dollars.
Why Congress Is Necessary
No one would purposely design the sprawling and shambolic bureaucracy we have today. But of course, it is not the work of any one architect. It grew in fits over the last century, its form reflecting the complex motives and competing ambitions of the myriad lawmakers, administrators, and interest groups that shaped it.
Recognizing that bureaucracies tend to transform and grow over time, presidents and Congress used to work together to periodically prune down and rearrange the executive bureaucracy. Congress would give the president the authority to reorganize the executive branch as he saw fit, while reserving the right to veto his plans.
However, when the Supreme Court ruled in 1983 that legislative vetoes, of the kind Congress used to block presidential reorganization plans it opposes, were unconstitutional, Congress was left with two options: give the president carte blanche authority to restructure the executive bureaucracy, or periodically restructure it itself.
Congress has never done the latter, and only rarely—and tepidly—engaged in the former.
Without congressional action, there is a good deal Trump and his lieutenants can do. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke are already making significant headway in their own departments.
But there are hard limits on how far the White House can go without Congress’ help. This is because most agencies and offices are mentioned somewhere in statute, which means they can only be eliminated by statute. In other words, Congress must vote.
How to Accomplish Reorganization
Though members of Congress on both sides of the aisle recognize that the federal bureaucracy needs serious reform, no one wants the bloodletting to start with them. Congressmen can rarely recognize a “bridge to nowhere” in their own district, nor can they seem to identify any redundant agencies under their committee’s jurisdiction.
One way to bypass the tendency of members to safeguard their own authority is to ask members of Congress to commit to sacrifices before anyone knows whose ox will be gored.
Instead of authoring an executive reorganization themselves, legislators should create a bipartisan commission to draft a plan that would be assured a single up-or-down vote in Congress—before being presented to the president for his signature or veto.
This is, essentially, the formula Congress followed at the culmination of the Cold War. As the Soviet Union disintegrated, there was widespread agreement that America’s military infrastructure should be scaled down—but no members of Congress were willing to give up bases in their own districts.
Instead of fighting an uphill slog against its own parochialism, Congress created the Base Realignment and Closure Commission—composed of independent experts appointed by the president, with the advice of congressional leaders from both parties—to identify unneeded military bases for closure.
This system proved effective. From 1998 to 2005, the commission closed 130 major bases and many more minor installations. The last round of closures alone has saved $3.8 billion annually.
The success of this commission shows that members of Congress are more willing to approve a plan devised by a panel of experts than they are to submit proposals that negatively affect their friends and colleagues. Affirming the outcome of a process and the wisdom of an impartial outsider is, understandably, easier than leading an attack against a colleague.
Executive reorganization might not be the most scintillating policy item on the Trump administration and Congress’ docket. Substantive policy changes are bound to grab more headlines than wonky structural changes.
But with Americans deeply divided over the proper size and role of government, executive reorganization is a way to realize significant savings without necessarily cutting popular services.
Moreover, while most policy issues are mired by partisan division, a long-overdue makeover of the executive bureaucracy is a rare opportunity for bipartisanship.