The Washington Post

Obama’s plan for restructuring government? Forget about it.

President Barack Obama speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Thursday, May 2, 2013, where he announced he will nominate Penny Pritzker, right, as Commerce Secretary and Michael Froman as U.S. Trade Representative, in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) President Obama announced he will nominate Penny Pritzker, right, as Commerce Secretary and Michael Froman as U.S. Trade Representative. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Now that President Obama has nominated hotel magnate Penny Pritzker as Commerce Secretary and longtime staffer Michael Froman as the U.S. trade representative, one might ask: whatever happened to last year's plan to combine the government's trade, investment and commerce functions into one department?

Just put it out of your mind.

Sure, Obama announced with much fanfare in January 2012 that he intended to create a new federal department to oversee trade and investment, business and economic development, technology and innovation, and economic statistics. The move would have put together elements of several agencies--including Commerce, USTR, the Small Business Administration, the Export-Import Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corp. and the Trade and Development Agency--in an effort to boost efficiency and focus the federal government's efforts on job creation.

“No business or nonprofit leader would allow this kind of duplication or unnecessary complexity in their operations,” Obama said at the time. “So why is it okay in our government? It’s not. It has to change.”

Well, it hasn't changed yet.

Obama did highlight the idea in his 2012 State of the Union, where he made a joke of how two different agencies regulate salmon, depending on whether the fish are swimming in freshwater or saltwater. (Under Obama's reorganization plan, the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration would have moved from Commerce over to the Interior Department.)

And according to Office of Management and Budget spokesman Steven Posner, the White House still wants it to happen.

“The president continues to support his proposal to reorganize business-related agencies into a single department," Posner wrote in an e-mail. "The proposal was included again in his FY 2014 budget.”

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who said at the time he stood "ready to work with President Obama on proposals to reorganize federal agencies," said he hasn't given up hope yet.

"We’re still waiting," Issa said in a statement. "I’m disappointed the President has not proposed a detailed plan, but if he does, a restructuring could still happen.”

Earlier this month, the Government Accountability Office head testified before Issa's panel about the importance of collaborating with the legislative branch when a chief executive is hoping to reform the way the government works.

“The reorganizations that work best are those in which the Congress is deeply involved at the outset in making sure that they understand what the proposals are going to be, what will be done, and how it will be done," U.S. comptroller general Gene L. Dodaro testified at the April 9 hearing. "One of the concerns that I know various members raised, you know, as regards to the last reorganization proposal that came in from the administration was that they hadn't been brought in at an early enough point to understand the implications of this.”

Some, who questioned the wisdom of moving NOAA out of the Commerce Department, are likely to breath a sigh of relief at the apparent lack of progress.

"I hope this is a sign that cooler heads have prevailed," said David Goldston, director of government affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group. "Ocean policy shouldn't be structured because of collateral damage from an unrelated proposal."

But to House Speaker John Boehner's (R-Ohio) spokesman Brendan Buck, it's just another reason to question the president's record.

“Like with so many of the president’s proposals throughout the years, this idea came with a lot of hype but zero follow-through to actually get it done," Buck wrote in an e-mail.


Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's White House bureau chief, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.



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