President Obama isn’t the first president to propose reorganizing federal agencies and his predecessors also faced stiff resistance and yielded mixed results.
Attempts to conduct wholesale reorganizations date back to the 1937 Brownlow Committee, which concluded simply, “The President needs help.” Launched by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the panel recommended establishment of the Executive Office of the President, which today includes the Office of Management and Budget and the independent Office of Personnel Management.
A more ambitious reorganization began in 1947, when a commission led by former president Herbert Hoover issued hundreds of recommendations, most of which were later adopted by Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower. The General Services Administration and departments of Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services trace back to panel’s recommendations.
In 1972, President Richard Nixon appointed four “super secretaries” to oversee the government’s work on community development, economic development, human resources and natural resources.
“It got lost in the chaos of Watergate, even though it was a good idea,” said Mordecai Lee, a professor of governmental affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who studied Nixon’s reorganization and author of “Nixon’s Super-Secretaries The Last Grand Presidential Reorganization Effort.” The plans also failed because Nixon failed to secure enough support from lawmakers and outside groups, Lee said.
“Every special interest group likes having its own little department, and every congressional chair likes controlling his or her little fiefdom,” Lee added. “Reorganization takes power away from them, because it changes the status quo. What Obama needs to do is two things: One, he needs to find members of Congress who think this is a good idea and are willing to be the workhorses. And second, he needs to create a public constituency who will counter the lobbying by special interest groups. Otherwise, it’ll die like Nixon’s plans did.”
One senior administration official familiar with the plans said Friday that they anticipate fierce opposition to the plans, but the opposition will help underscore the president’s point that Washington needs fixing.
“You won’t have many businesses say that yes, it’s easy to navigate the federal government. No one will say that,” the official said. “You won’t get a good government expert to say that. You’re not going to get any management consultant. So you’re defined by the people who opposed you and in some ways it just underscores the point the president will make.”
Several reorganization plans have emerged in recent years — some by choice, others by necessity.
The Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks forced a massive reorganization of security agencies, including the 2003 birth of the Department of Homeland Security, which brought 22 disparate agencies under one command. But almost 10 years since its establishment, current and former officials agree the relatively young department is still suffering from poor management and unclear focus.
A 2003 study led by former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker proposed the merger of several Executive branch agencies, suggested the elimination of hundreds of politically-appointed positions and examined ways to overhaul the federal workforce.
But those plans went nowhere.
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