A bill granting President Carter the authority he requested to reorganize the federal government swept through the Senate yesterday, 92 to 0.
The President, had urgently sought the bill as a mechanism for his plans to streamine and simplify the federal bureaucracy. Action now moves to the House, where the Government Operations Committee is holding hearings on the bill. The committee chairman, Jack Brooks (D-Tex.), wants major changes in the measure.
The legislation provides that a reorganization plan formulated by the President goes into effect automatically unless either chamber of Congress disapproves it within 60 calendar days while Congress is in session.
Such reorganization plans could include proposals to shift an agency or bureau from one Cabinet department to another, to consolidate bureaus within a department or to shift the functions of one agency into another.
All the President would have to do is send the plan to Congress and if there were no negative action by either chamber within 60 days, the plan would go into effect.
However, the authority in the bill couldn't be used to create or abolish entire Cabinet departments or to create or abolish independent regulatory agencies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, Federal Trade Commission or Interstate Commerce Commission. For that, an act of Congress signed into law by the President would be needed.
Nor could he use the authority in the bill to wipe out any substantive federal program or benefit, such as social Security, health benefits, school aid, antitrust enforcement or veterans' benefits. That would require an act of Congress.
What the bill does grant is authority, subject only to the congressional veto, to shift functions and agencies below the Cabinet level. Thus, to create his proposed new Department. Energy, which will be cabinet [WORD ILLEGIBLE] will require an act of Congress, [WORD ILLEGIBLE] bill creating the department was introduced this week. But if he wanted to shift Army engineers' civilian water projects from the Defense Department to the Interior Department and merge it with the Reclamation Bureau, he could use the reorganization authority contained in the bill passed yesterday.
The reorganization mechanism contained in the Senate bill is basically the same as established under the Reorganization Act of 1949, which Congress allowed to lapse in 1973 for fear that President Nixon would use it too much.
It is considerably easier to use for reorganization purposes than a flat act of Congress, since, under the 60-day mechanism, mere inaction by Congress would guarantee that the President's proposal goes into effect.
The bill was shepherded through the Senate by Sens. Abraham A. Ribicoff (D-Conn.) and Charles H. Percy (R-Ill.) of the Governmental Affairs Committee.
The focus of attention now goes to the House, where Rep. Brooks favors an entirely different approach. Instead of allowing a reorganization plan to go into effect unless Congress takes negative action. Brooks wants to require an affirmative vote by both chambers. However, most observers believe the President may have the votes to overcome Brooks and get the House to approve the version Carter wants. Brooks' committee has held one hearing on the proposal and has scheduled another for next week.
The Senate version of the bill contains substantial assurances that a resolution disapproving a presidential reorganization plan can't be smothered in committee or through a floor filibuster.
If an individual member introduces a resolution disapproving a reorganization plan submitted by the President, a motion to discharge the committee and bring it to the floor is in order if the committee does not act in 10 days. Such a motion is highly privileged, and if it passes, debate on the resolution of disapproval is limited to 10 hours and then a vote takes place. Thus, a filibuster in the Senate or similar blocking action in the House on moves to disapprove are precluded.
Carter has promised a drastic consolidation and streamlining of federal agencies, at one point during his campaign delaring that he would reduce federal agencies from 1,900 to 200.
Ribicoff, Percy and Sen. Jacob K. Javits (R-N.Y.) made clear yesterday tht the President intends to use the reorganization plan authority to wipe out or consolidate hundreds, perhaps thousands, of little advisory committees and units laced throughout the federal government.