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Trump wants to reorganize the executive branch. Good luck with that.

President Trump talks before signing an executive order entitled “Comprehensive Plan for Reorganizing the Executive Branch” in the Oval Office on March. 13. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
A sweeping reorganization of the executive branch is needed if the government is to keep up with the times and with the needs of the people. … The time has come to match our structure to our purposes — to look with a fresh eye, to organize the government by conscious, comprehensive design to meet the new needs of a new era.

So said President Trump on March 13, announcing his new executive order “on a comprehensive plan for reorganizing the executive branch.”

Oh. Wait. Sorry. No, that was actually Richard Nixon’s 1971 State of the Union address.

Here we go:

I came to Washington to reorganize a federal government which had grown more preoccupied with its own bureaucratic needs than with those of the people. This executive order is an instrument for reversing this trend.

Oops, that was Jimmy Carter, in March 1978.

One more try:

Injecting competition and market forces into the delivery of services will reduce duplication, lower overhead costs, and better serve the American people.

My bad — that’s Bill Clinton, from 1994.

Okay, then, is this Tuesday’s recording?:

The government we have is not the government that we need. We live in a 21st century economy, but we’ve still got a government organized for the 20th century. … No business or nonprofit leader would allow this kind of duplication or unnecessary complexity in their operations. You wouldn’t do it when you’re thinking about your businesses. So why is it okay for our government? It’s not.

No — that one was Barack Obama in 2012. In that speech, he pushed both for general authority to reorganize government functions — power which was granted to presidents, on and off, from FDR to Ronald Reagan — and also, specifically, for consolidation of federal commerce and trade agencies into a unified entity.

But seriously, folks — executive reform has a long history

So when Trump — for real this time — complained about “duplication and redundancy everywhere,” and urged more “efficiency, effectiveness and accountability of the executive branch,” he was preaching to a bipartisan, historical presidential choir.

Trump’s solution, well, duplicated a long line of initiatives going back to when the government got big enough to have an organization worth reorganizing. As political scientist Paul Light has shown, there are “tides of reform” — or, at least, of attempted reform. Peri Arnold’s essential study, “Making the Managerial Presidency,” dates the first serious effort in this vein to 1910 and William Howard Taft’s Inquiry in Re-Efficiency and Economy.

Such efforts continued through the creation of the Bureau of the Budget in 1921; President Warren Harding’s Cabinet reorganization proposals of 1923; the recommendations of the Brownlow Committee in 1937; the first and second Hoover Commissions of the 1940s and 1950s; and on and on. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had PACGO (the President’s Advisory Committee for Government Organization); President Lyndon B. Johnson had the Task Force on Government Reorganization; Nixon weighed in with the Ash Council; Carter had a “President’s Reorganization Project;” Reagan had the Grace Commission (and, internally, the “Reform ‘88” initiative); Clinton had the National Performance Review; George W. Bush had the President’s Management Agenda; Obama the streamlining plan described above.

As this suggests, presidents generally have both managerial and political incentives to streamline the executive branch and make it work better.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is, lawmakers do not. No one is a public partisan for government in-efficiency. But the growth of the federal government was both legislatively driven and largely unplanned. New departments sprang from ongoing events and from successful pressure from interest groups seeking institutionalized attention to their wishes.

Further, the executive branch’s fragmentation is mirrored by the array of congressional committees and subcommittees — and to change the former is to jeopardize the jurisdictions of the latter. Since committee assignments are often sought as a means of helping channel resources to constituencies, that kind of change is normally fiercely resisted.

So most efforts at systematic reorganization have beached on the shoals of congressional hostility. The Nixon presidency makes a useful short case study. Nixon was able to rework the Executive Office of the President, creating a Domestic Council and changing the Bureau of the Budget into the Office of Management and Budget. He was also able to create the Environmental Protection Agency, since that agency’s mission was, at the time, largely bipartisan.

But when, in the 1971 State of the Union address, Nixon called for more systematic departmental consolidation, he was rebuffed. His plan was quite well thought-out: it kept the “inner Cabinet” departments (State, Treasury, Defense, Justice) but combined most of the rest into larger organizations based on function rather than constituency. There would be departments of Natural Resources, Human Resources, Community Development, and Economic Development. The template shifted over time: In response to congressional pressure, the Department of Agriculture was restored as a stand-alone agency.

But even that wasn’t enough to win approval. None of the bills ever got out of committee.

As Arnold puts it, they failed “because they were too large a challenge to the centrifugal forces within the national government.” It has generally taken an external shock to overcome those forces — as when George W. Bush campaigned against lawmakers who were resisting the creation of a Department of Homeland Security after the 9/11 attacks.

So can Trump reorganize the executive branch, at long last?

Will the current effort succeed? Trump’s version asks each agency to come up with a “proposed plan to reorganize the agency, if appropriate,” and to submit it to OMB within six months. (It seems possible that not every agency will find reorganization “appropriate.”) OMB, in turn, has another six months to compile these proposals into a single master plan for the president’s consideration. This will include “recommendations for any legislation or administrative measures necessary.”

Many of those recommendations will probably find favor with scholars of public administration. And they will probably receive some legislative lip-service. As Clinton put it when talking about “reinventing government,” “any politician worth a flip can figure out how to develop four or five one-liners” about waste and red tape “that will make 90 percent of the voters shout hallelujah.”

But as Kevin Kosar notes, Trump will have to work with and win over Congress to make this work: either to convince lawmakers to give him the unilateral reorganization authority they denied Obama, or to show that such changes are in Congress’s best interest as well as the president’s. Historically, that has proved an uphill battle.