The Trump administration's sweeping plan to overhaul the structure of the federal government sets lofty goals and contains some worthwhile ideas, but it is not likely to achieve a significant shrinkage of the leviathan.
The proposal is admirable in its ambition. Most of the headlines have focused on the plan to merge the Departments of Education and Labor into a new cabinet-level office called the Department of Education and Workforce. But the plan would also consolidate public assistance programs into a renamed Department of Health and Public Welfare, would combine some duplicative food safety programs run by the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, and would seek to privatize the postal service and air traffic control services.
Mick Mulvaney, director of the White House's Office of Management and Budget, called the plan the biggest reorganization of the federal government since Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, Politico reported.
"Today's Executive Branch is still aligned to the stove-piped organizational constructs of the 20th Century, which in many cases have grown inefficient and out-of-date," the administration's 130-page proposal states. "Consequently, the public and our workforce are frustrated with Government's ability to deliver its mission in an effective, efficient, and secure way."
Unfortunately, much of the inefficiency of—and resulting frustration with—government services results from them being, well, government services. Changing the name plates on the front of Washington D.C.'s many, many brutalist filing-cabinets full of bureaucrats won't inject more competition or motivation into those departments. Nor will it it guarantee a reduction in the scope of governmental power over the lives of individuals.
Moving programs from one department to another might help streamline the federal organizational chart, but it's not likely to save much money. "Eliminating a department while transferring its programs in essentially unchanged form to other departments or agencies would probably result in little or no budgetary savings," the Congressional Budget Office concluded in a review of departmental merger proposals in 2013, "because most of the costs incurred by departments are the costs of the programs themselves."
That doesn't mean that efforts to eliminate unnecessary or ineffective programs, reduce duplicative services, or streamline government agencies are not worthwhile. They are. But it's disappointing to see so much of the Trump administration's plan focused on shuffling government programs from one department to another, rather than seriously considering which functions could be abolished or privatized.
Some of the proposals seem to amount to little more than conservative-friendly rebranding—like the idea of renaming the Department of Health and Human Services as the Department of Health and Public Welfare (though the administration also calls for bringing non-HHS public assistance programs, like food stamps, into the newly renamed department).
Others seem aimed only at reducing weird internal government contradictions. Mulvaney told Politico that one of his "favorite" examples of goofy government is the fact that a salmon swimming in the ocean is regulated by the Department of Commerce, while a salmon swimming up an American river is regulated by the Department of the Interior. Those examples are a dime a dozen. You may recall that President Barack Obama, in announcing a more limited government reorganization plan in 2013, complained about how pepperoni pizza is regulated differently than cheese pizza. But why should the federal government have to regulate salmon and pizza at all?
"It is disappointing that the opportunity was not taken to propose a wholesale reduction in the size of government," says Iain Murray, vice president for policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free market think tank.
It's also hard to envision Congress doing much with this proposal before the November midterms. As The Wall Street Journal notes, lawmakers have typically been reluctant to embrace such ideas in the past. Even with the cancellation of the August recess, there's not much reason to expect Congress to engage in major policy debates before the election. Heck, Congress might not even pass a budget.
In the end, this proposal from the Trump administration is likely to end up on a shelf collecting dust beside previous government consolidation proposals from the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations. In fact, parts of the Trump plan—including the high-profile plan to merge the Departments of Education and Labor—seem to have been lifted from those previous, unsuccessful efforts. But even if the administration's reach exceeds its grasp, there are a few relatively light lifts that could and should be added to the congressional agenda.
Chief among those is the privatization of the air-traffic control system, something the Reason Foundation (which publishes this blog) has been advocating for a long time. As Reason's Director of Transportation Policy Bob Poole noted in a feature last year, the American air traffic control system is out-of-date and out-of-touch with developments in the rest of the world. Airlines, the air traffic controllers' union, business groups, and many professional transportation policy analysts agree that air traffic control should be spun-off from the Federal Aviation Authority. It's possible that Trump's grand plan for reorganizing the government could help undo the inertia that has so far blocked this relatively simple, cost-saving reform.
Maybe the best example of the gap between the ambition and the reality of the Trump administration's plan lies in the Education-Labor merger. The change would "allow the federal government to address the educational and skill needs of American students and workers in a coordinated way, eliminating duplication of effort between the two agencies and maximizing the effectiveness of skill-building efforts."
But at the same time, the proposal goes to lengths to emphasize the goal of eliminating "one-size-fits-all" government.
It's tough to square that circle. As long as the federal government is taking a central role in American education and labor, there will always be one-size-fits-all regulations that limit innovation and effectiveness. If the Trump administration wanted a truly revolutionary plan, it would acknowledge as much.