History shows Obama's effort to reorganize government could be an uphill battle

The Post's Dan Balz analyzes President Obama's State of the Union address.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 28, 2011; 12:00 AM

If you want to know what President Obama is up against with his pledge to reorganize the federal government, consider what happened to the last such endeavor.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, nearly two dozen agencies were melded into the new Department of Homeland Security, to better coordinate the government's resources for handling terrorism and other national emergencies.

But the members of Congress overseeing those agencies were loath to give up any authority. That is why DHS gets marching orders from more than 100 congressional committees and subcommittees - a number that has grown in the past seven years, despite the 9/11 Commission's recommendation that those tangled lines of authority be consolidated.

And although experts have long called for one agency to handle food safety, that has not happened, in large part because neither the secretary of agriculture nor the secretary of health and human services is willing to cede the job to the other.

Obama is far from the first president to vow to streamline the workings of the vast federal machinery. Or to point out the absurdities of a system that, as he noted in his State of the Union address on Tuesday, has the Interior Department regulating salmon in fresh water and the Commerce Department doing so for those in salt water - and it "gets even more complicated once they're smoked," Obama said.

That line - the inspiration of new White House Chief of Staff William M. Daley, who remembered the situation from his experience as Bill Clinton's commerce secretary - drew the biggest laugh of the night.

But it also may have been an apt metaphor, given the upstream battle that attempts at government reorganization have faced at least since the time of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The White House has not come up with any details - or settled on who will head the effort.

Jacob J. Lew, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said that Obama is well aware of how difficult the job will be and that the White House intends to proceed cautiously, focusing on changes that could improve national competitiveness.

Although Obama can make some changes by executive order, Lew added, he does not have the authority to move operations from one agency to another without congressional approval.

But Lew predicted that solid ideas will find bipartisan support. "There's never a guarantee," he said. "These are the kinds of things where you don't know the answer until you ask the question."

This is not an entirely new cause for Obama, who during his presidential campaign and inaugural address talked about the need to make the government work better. One of his first acts in office was appointing a chief performance officer.

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