The bureaucratic sprawl Obama wants to cut

at 10:14 AM ET, 01/13/2012

At 11:20 a.m. Friday, President Obama will ask Congress for authorization to consolidate different parts of the federal government. As a first step, my colleagues David Nakamura and Ed O’Keefe report, he’s planning to “combine several trade- and commerce-related agencies and offices.”


President Barack Obama (Jewel Samad - AFP/Getty Images)
The precise details of Obama’s plan remain to be seen, but a report (PDF) last year from the Government Accountability Office found that there are plenty of redundant and duplicative government agencies to cut and consolidate if the White House so desires. On the trade and commerce front, the GAO found heavy overlap in 80 economic development programs within the Commerce Department, the Department of Agriculture, the Small Business Association, and the Department of Housing.

For instance, as the table below shows, those four agencies alone have 52 different programs to fund “entrepreneurial efforts,” many of which appear to do similar things. And there are 26 different programs related to telecommunications:

Now, there may be a perfectly good rationale for having so many different programs scattered about so many different agencies, but the GAO’s researchers had a hard time figuring out what that rationale might be. Many of those offices were small and seemed entirely duplicative. Twenty-one of the programs, for instance, targeted the same geographic regions.

For Obama’s part, he reportedly has his sights set today on the Small Business Administration; the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative; the Export-Import Bank; the Overseas Private Investment Corporation; and the Trade and Development Agency. Last year, the White House commissioned a study of which government agencies should be targeted, and presumably that study’s conclusions were slightly different from the GAO’s.

All told, the White House’s step today is expected to save $3 billion over 10 years — a lot of money, but not something that will make a big dent in federal budget deficits. (To put that figure in context, the federal government spent $70 billion on prescription drugs just last year.) What’s more, today’s move is projected to eliminate 1,000 positions through attrition, out of a total of roughly 2.1 million federal employees. Which is just another reminder that while there may be waste to be wrung out of government, it doesn’t affect the larger debt picture very much.

 
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