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Posted at 10:04 PM ET, 01/25/2011

State of the Union 2011: Obama calls for reorganization of federal agencies

By Ed O'Keefe

President Obama called Tuesday for what aides describe as the most aggressive reorganization of the federal government in at least half a century, asking Congress for the authority to merge agencies and departments if necessary.

The White House plans to unveil more details in the coming weeks, according to senior administration officials familiar with the proposals. Administration officials intend to conduct a review of agency operations, but aides said congressional action may be necessary to enact some desired changes.

In his State of the Union address, Obama used stark terms to explain the needs for a reorganization: "There are twelve different agencies that deal with exports. There are at least five different agencies that deal with housing policy."

"Then there's my favorite example," he said. "The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they're in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them in when they're in saltwater. I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked."

Kidding aside (and the line earned laughs) there are indeed five agencies and departments responsible for at least some aspects of federal food safety -- the Agriculture Department, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Health and Human Services and the National Institutes of Health.

Reorganizing the federal government is nothing new: The Brownlow Committee recommended establishing the Executive Office of the President in 1937, the Hoover Commission prompted another overhaul after World War II and the Volcker Commission examined ways to overhaul the federal workforce.

Despite those reports, the government hasn't conducted a significant overhaul of operations in decades, White House aides said.

"This is long overdue. And nobody's done anything about it," said one aide familiar with the plans who was unauthorized to speak on the record.

Keeping in line with the president's focus on economic growth, the reorganization will focus on how federal agencies can be restructured to "serve a more competitive America," the aide said.

Obama's pledge to merge and reorganize agencies mirrors proposals published in a Feb. 2010 report by the liberal Center for American Progress (CAP) called, "Doing What Works."

The report highlights several government redundancies, noting for example that low-income families are eligible for several federal programs, "each with their own administrative structures and application processes."

"It might make more sense to employ consolidated enrollment with one application to assess eligibility for multiple programs," the report said. "The administrative savings generated from this consolidated system could then be used to better provide for beneficiaries."

CAP is headed by former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta and has hatched many of the government management reforms passed by Congress or enacted by Obama through executive orders, including a review of federal regulations, a two-year effort to eliminate $40 billion in government contracts, and a broader goal of curtailing hundreds of billions of dollars in improper payments to fraudulent beneficiaries and contractors.

However the Obama administration proceeds, "consensus will be very important," said Jitinder Kohli, a CAP senior fellow, who helped author the report. Special interest groups impacted by potential changes will be especially concerned, he said.

"This is a big task," said Gary Bass, founder and executive director of OMB Watch, a group tracking government operations. "You know, everyone fights to get their one sentence into the State of the Union, but this issue got more than one. This is obviously a big agenda item."

But Cato Institute fellow Chris Edwards said the administration should focus less on efficiency and more on cutting overall government spending. "The real meaning of our $1.4 trillion budget deficit is that the government simply does too much stuff that we can't afford to do anymore," he said.

The potential merger, reorganization or closure of agencies will be tracked closely by federal worker labor unions.

"The success of such efforts will be largely determined by the degree to which frontline employees are engaged in the planning and implementation efforts," said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. "It is critical that those who perform the work every day be involved from the very beginning of the process."

Sen. Thomas Carper (D-Del.), who closely tracks government management issues, called Obama's pledge "music to my ears."

"I've said we need to be thinking about for some time now," Carper said. "Particularly as we struggle with massive federal deficits, we have to ensure that we are getting the biggest bang for the taxpayers' buck when it comes to running the federal government."

What would you merge, cut or consolidate? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below

By Ed O'Keefe  | January 25, 2011; 10:04 PM ET
Categories:  Administration  
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Next: How would you reorganize the federal government?

Comments

Hmm...I would elimate the ARS of USDA; there is duplication with agricultural colleges. I would merge FSA and NRCS of USDA; an incredible overhead would be reduced and eliminated. I would eliminate RD of USDA and let banks handle those duties. This would be a start; then there are defense obligations that need a realistic review. Draw down from Europe, Japan, South Korea. Withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan; they are lost causes.

Posted by: OldFed1 | January 25, 2011 10:43 PM | Report abuse

"But Cato Institute said, "The real meaning of our $1.4 trillion budget deficit is that the government simply does too much stuff that we can't afford to do anymore," he said."

Yes, people love to say, "cut the govt." Then you start mentioning programs, and you realize that we have these programs because they are popular. Once you attack a program, you attack its constituents, whether they be veterans, children, Indians, farmers, insurance corporations, etc. No one will stand up for government in theory, but many people will stand up for government programs in practice.

The truth is that we have the government we collectively want. We just don't like paying for it, which is why we can pass tax cuts while crying about deficits.

Posted by: AxelDC | January 25, 2011 10:53 PM | Report abuse

Cutting all of the Shadow Government, not sanctioned and Commissioned by Congress is the right way to fix this.
The Homeland Defense cut would make that monster gestapo shack Janet built a museum of poor Government spending.

Give the FBI back it's powers and let the States have their National Guard troops back to defend themselves from Foreign invaders.

Bye Bye Janet and the big bills she racks up as a non Congressionally sanctioned or commissioned entity.


No more POTUS power.

Posted by: dottydo | January 25, 2011 11:30 PM | Report abuse

A primary target should be the DOJ's Antitrust Division and the FTC's Bureau of Competition.

Posted by: mialvarez | January 25, 2011 11:36 PM | Report abuse

Snore, snore. So what's new? He had our attention but said nothing, but tried to be very charming. So when will he address the 9.4% unemployment issue...??? Without spending???We owe a fortune to others...he talks of cutting pennies but leaves dollars on the table. Angry...you bet.

Posted by: MOMLEE | January 25, 2011 11:41 PM | Report abuse

You say that "there are indeed five agencies and departments responsible for at least some aspects of federal food safety -- the Agriculture Department, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Health and Human Services and the National Institutes of Health." But the CDC, FDA, and NIH are all part of the same agency - HHS.

Posted by: billyriv | January 25, 2011 11:50 PM | Report abuse

The USEPA purportedly oversees numerous federal programs authorized or implemented by the states. All regional offices and Headquarters expend an inordinate amount of time and staff duplicating and second guessing state actions. Audit teams could be used to determine compliance with federal requirements both legal and contractual. Such teams could serve as evaluators for identifying duplicative programs and suggesting ongoing streamlining.

Posted by: SolutionOriented | January 25, 2011 11:52 PM | Report abuse

OldFed seems to have been away from USDA for some time since the majority of RD money goes to guarantee loans initiated by banks that don't want to risk their money beyond their 10 or 20%. Banks have not been falling all over themselves to fund innovative biofuel facilities, like algal or cellulosic ethanol biorefineries. Multifamily housing finance for low and moderate income is being delivered by the private sector in rural areas? Really? Where?
I was under the impression that ARS was funding research at a variety of colleges, and that FSA contracts with NRCS to deliver a variety of local services, like advice to farmers on soil conservation and cropping practices, nutrient practices, and manure management. Is there need for more those last too? Absolutely, considering the nutrient loadings from farms into the Gulf and the Chesapeake Bay. Question is, will private market forces deliver such reductions in sediment and nutrient loads anytime soon? I have yet to see any evidence of such a chimera. So, who is supposed to pick up the slack while waiting for such Supermen?

Posted by: FrankP2 | January 26, 2011 12:10 AM | Report abuse

Hey, Open a new business, and then let us send out 5,000 agencies to fine you for some small obscure detail they spend all day long being anal over.

Preppers Depression intent to shrink the Governance was well founded and with a specific purpose.
To shrink too big government out of the way of private sector business.

Posted by: dottydo | January 26, 2011 12:15 AM | Report abuse

Hey, Open a new business, and then let us send out 5,000 agencies to fine you for some small obscure detail they spend all day long being anal over.

Preppers Depression intent to shrink the Governance was well founded and with a specific purpose.
To shrink too big government out of the way of private sector business.

Posted by: dottydo | January 26, 2011 12:16 AM | Report abuse

The federal agencies can and need to be streamlined and made more efficent. Cutting regulations is part of this streamlining. There are agencies that can be merged together. The Veterans Affairs and the Pentagon need to merge the military hospitals with the VA. This was attempted in a limited manner in the late 1990's. I was a manager of a radiology dept. at a VA and we merged a AF hospital with our hospital. These mergers are not easy but can be done.

Posted by: pasisk | January 26, 2011 8:11 AM | Report abuse

I would merge the Coast Guard with the DOD. This would allow the utilzation of the Air Guard and Air Reserves to handle the Air mission of the CG. This alone would save several billion and would lead to a reduction in personnel and duplicative aircraft.

Posted by: MarkUSAF | January 26, 2011 9:02 AM | Report abuse

Think RIF's. They go hand-in-hand with "reorganizations". That'll save a ton of money!

Posted by: depstein | January 26, 2011 10:56 AM | Report abuse

obama wants to insure executive control over all the agencies...
fill management with dem loyalists...
insure republican Presidents get no cooperation...

Posted by: DwightCollins | January 26, 2011 12:33 PM | Report abuse

I pulled this paragraph out because all low-income families are NOT eligible...

The report highlights several government redundancies, noting for example that low-income families are eligible for several federal programs, "each with their own administrative structures and application processes."

If you're a Medical Cannibus patient, you are NOT allowed a low income home, ie Section 8. We were at the top of the list, medical cannibis use had been disclosed at the very beginning. As soon as we had all paperwork in hand, we were denied section 8 housing by Pullman Community Action. This needs to be rectified. We had a house lined up, but because Spokane and Pullman Housing Authority discriminated against us, we have to live in a DUMP.
Obama(?) needs to look into non-discrimination for Medical Cannabis patients and thier families when it comes to "low-income families are eligible for several federal programs".

Posted by: ckeran3 | January 26, 2011 1:04 PM | Report abuse

I pulled this paragraph out because all low-income families are NOT eligible...

The report highlights several government redundancies, noting for example that low-income families are eligible for several federal programs, "each with their own administrative structures and application processes."

If you're a Medical Cannibus patient, you are NOT allowed a low income home, ie Section 8. We were at the top of the list, medical cannibis use had been disclosed at the very beginning. As soon as we had all paperwork in hand, we were denied section 8 housing by Pullman Community Action. This needs to be rectified. We had a house lined up, but because Spokane and Pullman Housing Authority discriminated against us, we have to live in a DUMP.
Obama(?) needs to look into non-discrimination for Medical Cannabis patients and thier families when it comes to "low-income families are eligible for several federal programs".

Posted by: ckeran3 | January 26, 2011 1:06 PM | Report abuse

Reorganization my butt..... How many times to we need to reorganize to see it has not worked? This reorganization costs massive amounts of money that produces nada! And the same doodlebugs, crooks and career government leaches are still in positions of authority. Fire (or indict) the top 20% of leadership and you would do more good and maybe get the attention of the rest of the dead wood.

Posted by: gunnysgt77 | January 26, 2011 1:40 PM | Report abuse

OK, I am coming at this as a retired Fed who spent over 47 years in one of the agencies mentioned.

When it comes to fish, there is a sixth agency that has a hand in that pie: NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service's Seafood Inspection Service. Yes, the food inspection services is a muddle beyond belief, but the chances of getting it all in one agency is going to be nigh unto impossible. Industry fears all that power in one agency and actually plays the muddle to get its way. Congressmen from various committees fear a loss of the pie when it come to appropriating funds to their districts for food inspection (let's face it and just call it the pork slice).

Making things even worse in this muddle is that only FDA is charged with the actual job of insuring that the food is actually safe and has the American Public as its constituency. USDA and NMFS has the industry as its constituency by law, for these safe good is only there to guarantee good sales, unsafe food tends not to sell.

Frankly, the chances of reorganizing all of the agencies is pretty much akin to a snowball in hell. Don't hold your breath, constituencies will fight you ever step of the way and if you thought get FinReg through was hard, just wait until you take on these agencies who have historical entitlements. Good luck.

Posted by: RedRat | January 26, 2011 1:41 PM | Report abuse

"Dottydo" is a ditzy dumbbell. Contrast her/his string of non-sequiturs and meaningless language ("Congressionally sanctioned??) with AxelDC's well-written, easy to read, and spot-on analysis of why government is what it is. We're a democracy, folks! We get what we want. Messy but responsive to someone's needs. It might be a hoot to read the inane rantings of the various conspiracists on here, but it sure doesn't help address any real problems.

Posted by: ewq21cxz | January 26, 2011 2:08 PM | Report abuse

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