On the campaign trail, Mitt Romney often cites his experiences revamping large corporations, saving the Salt Lake City Olympics and overhauling state agencies as governor of Massachusetts as evidence that he could effectively manage the federal government.
Many political observers agree that his managerial bona fides makes him well-suited to tackle Washington's fiscal woes and an attractive candidate for voters eager to control federal spending.
So if he’s elected president, how would Romney revamp the federal government?
According to an op-ed published in Friday’s USA Today, Romney would repeal President Obama’s health-care reforms, end subsidies for Amtrak, trim the federal workforce through attrition and cut foreign aid to countries hostile to the United States.
“I have never seen an enterprise as large, as poorly led, and as badly in need of a turnaround as our federal government,” Romney wrote.
Most of his top-level ideas are popular with primary-voting Republicans. But dive a little deeper, and Romney is eager to conduct a thorough audit of government operations.
In the op-ed, he calls for a top-to-bottom review of federal agencies centered around a central question: “Is this program so critical that it is worth borrowing money to pay for it?”
Expect to hear him share more details later Friday during a speech at the “Defending the American Dream Summit” hosted by Americans for Prosperity, a tea party-aligned advocacy group. Aides said the address will focus on fiscal policy and the governor’s plans to make the government more efficient and effective.
Romney’s 160-page economic plan, unveiled in September, also hints at what he might do.
“A first step in reform is acknowledging that the federal government cannot be everything to everyone,” Romney wrote. “There are many functions and services that the private sector can perform better than the public sector.”
He again cited Amtrak, noting that the train service lost money on 41 of its 44 routes in 2008 and that “If given a shot, the private sector will certainly do a better job.”
“Every government program and budget must be subjected to an intense top-down review to determine, first, whether tax dollars are being spent wisely and efficiently, and, second, whether there are more suitable alternatives to currently flawed approaches,” Romney said.
The plan mentions efforts to overhaul state agencies during his four years as Massachusetts governor.
But Mike Widmer, head of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy organization devoted to Bay State fiscal policy, said Romney’s reforms were just modest, top-level attempts to fix things.
In Feb. 2003, Romney proposed consolidating 15 state public health agencies into four separate clusters, a move designed to cut costs and make the agencies more efficient.
The plan passed with a few modifications by the Democratic-dominated state legislature, “but it didn’t really in any substantive way change how services were organized or delivered,” Widmer said. For example, he said the health agencies all used different boundaries to divide up responsibilities among regional and area offices across the state.
“A broader reform would have been to make those area and regional boundaries similar and to try to streamline how services are organized,” Widmer said. “This didn’t do that – it was really just pulling together agencies at the top level.”
Similar plans in 2004 led to a top-level reorganization of the Metropolitan District Commission — overseeing Boston-area parks and parkways — and the state’s Department of Environmental Management, which handled all other state parks. The plan saved just $1 million, Widmer said.
“Reforms are tough,” he added. “If one’s really trying to save money and change how government delivers services, they’re really tough. If one is trying to move around agencies at the top level, one can do that pretty straightforwardly, but there isn’t too much to show for it in terms of savings or better delivery of services.”
And any attempt to overhaul federal agencies in Washington will also prove difficult. Just ask President Obama.
During this year’s State of the Union address, he acknowledged the complexities by joking that multiple federal offices maintain jurisdictional control over salmon. Later, he asked aides to draft plans to merge about a dozen federal trade and commerce agencies and promised to unveil them over the summer.
Aides submitted a 90-page plan in June and promised the president would share the details at a big public event. But a summer-long fight over federal spending upended the rollout.
So will Obama ever propose any big changes?
Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob J. Lew on Thursday attempted to deflate any expectations of a grand, sweeping attempt to overhaul the federal structure, saying that Obama is still reviewing the proposals.
Speaking at a breakfast meeting hosted by Politico, Lew also cautioned that reorganizing government “is really hard in Washington, because you have agencies that have hard boundary lines, jurisdictional lines, you have congressional committees that have hard jurisdictional boundaries.”
“You have interest groups that are organized around the status quo,” he added. “We’re working very hard on some ideas on how to do government better. What label goes on it, whether it’s reorganization, consolidation, efficiency is less important.”
Bottom line: If history is any guide, Romney may unveil broad, aspirational reorganization goals that make longtime government observers swoon. But considering the time and political capital needed to make them a reality, the plans are unlikely to come to fruition.