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

By Karen Tumulty and Ed O'Keefe
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.

More recently, aides said, the president has used his international travel - including his November trip to Asia - to study how other countries operate.

Many of Washington's organizational problems are obvious.

Agents with the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have been known to wage turf battles at crime scenes, even though their operations were placed under the Justice Department after Sept. 11.

Last year's outbreak of salmonella illness brought attention to the fact that responsibility for egg safety bounces back and forth between the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration, depending on whether an egg is inside a chicken or has been laid, and whether it is whole or has been cracked open.

The solutions aren't exactly rocket science, either. (Speaking of which: At least four federal agencies claim authority over matters involving outer space.) But the politics can be treacherous.

"It will require a sustained political commitment to overcome vested jurisdictional interests," said Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), the ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

"Music to my ears," added Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), who is known on Capitol Hill for mastering the intricacies of how the government works. "Particularly as we struggle with massive federal deficits, we have to ensure that we are getting the biggest bang for the taxpayers' buck."

The difficulty has always been that the forces of status quo are better organized and more motivated than those of reform. Caspar W. Weinberger, known as "Cap the Knife" during his days as President Richard M. Nixon's budget director, described an "unholy trinity" of constituency groups, territory-conscious congressional committees, and administrators who built their careers running a particular program.

"It is a situation in which small, narrowly based groups who have what they want and are afraid of losing it inevitably have proven stronger than large groups with more or less amorphous and less single-minded attitudes," Weinberger wrote in 1978, recalling Nixon's short-lived effort to put the government's domestic functions into four super-departments.

Mordecai Lee, a professor of governmental affairs at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee who studied Nixon's reorganization, said that experience could be instructive for Obama.

"This is doable if Obama understands the politics of reorganization better than Nixon did," he said. "Nixon sort of thought that by the stroke of a pen he could do it, but then Watergate came and destroyed his leverage."

Other modern White Houses have taken a crack at the problem. The Clinton administration's "reinventing government" initiative of the 1990s was focused on making it more efficient, accountable and customer-friendly.

"It took government into the computer age," said Elaine Kamarck, who managed the effort as a top aide to Vice President Al Gore. But she added: "It's probably time for 2.0, or even 3.0."

But some recent efforts have gone nowhere.

Among them was a 2003 study led by former Federal Reserve chairman Paul A. Volcker that proposed the merger of several executive-branch agencies and the elimination of hundreds of politically appointed positions.

Last year's overhaul of financial regulation presented an opportunity to merge the Securities and Exchange Commission with the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, a move many experts have long advocated. But it didn't happen - in no small part because it would have cost the congressional agriculture committees their jurisdiction over commodities.

At a time when skepticism of Washington is on the rise, Obama's vow to reorganize government represents far more than an effort to make it more effective.

It is an attempt to restore the country's faith.

"We shouldn't just give our people a government that's more affordable. We should give them a government that's more competent and more efficient," Obama said in his State of the Union address. "We can't win the future with a government of the past."

But as past presidents have learned, when it comes to remaking the government, there's a long way to go from applause line to reality.

tumultyk@washpost.com ed.okeefe@washingtonpost.com

Staff writers Lyndsey Layton and Jerry Markon contributed to this report.

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