Re-organizing the Federal Government to Crush Opposition

One of the few virtues of the federal government has been its inefficiency. With functions spread out across different agencies and duplicated powers and responsibilities, it has often proved unable to harm the economy as much as it could owing to power games and competition among agencies. Now the president wants to change all that. He wants a ruthlessly efficient government to intrude in all aspects of our lives without internal checks and balances. An efficient government might have been a good thing 30 years ago, when the government was spending much less per person. Now that it’s spending over $30,000 per household, the prospect is terrifying.

Take, for example, the proposal to transfer the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from the Department of Commerce to the Interior Department. It’s clear that President Obama wants to create a European-style Department of the Environment. The merger gives the environmental lobby a one-stop shop for everything outside the EPA. It also creates a powerful behemoth that will be all-too-ready to trample property rights in the name of the environment. The Interior secretary and the EPA administrator will form a powerful alliance in the president’s cabinet, and the chances of protecting the environment through responsible stewardship and free market methods will be significantly diminished as this new bureaucracy expands its power.

Meanwhile, the proposed merger of the subsidies arm of the Commerce Department with such entities as the U.S. Trade Representative, the Small Business Administration, the Export-Import Bank, and other market-complicating agencies creates what one commentator called “a corporate welfare Voltron.” The whole purpose of this department will be to interfere with the free enterprise system to the benefit of the political flavors of the month. Rent-seekers across the country will delight that the process of diverting taxpayer money into their pockets will become simpler and easier. That may be efficient, but is is not responsible government.

How will the president achieve this radical transformation of his power base? The truth is that he can’t do it himself. The Congress removed reorganizational power from the president in 1984. The authority to create his own departments, secretaries, and agencies without congressional approval is how we ended up with the separate Departments of Education and Health and Human Services under Carter, and Veterans Affairs under Reagan. People often forget that there was no congressional action to create the EPA. It was created by a reorganization under President Nixon. In fact, during the period in which the president had the authority to create (or consolidate) departments and agencies, their numbers increased in greater amounts than in any other period in American history, including the Progressive era.

The one saving grace is that the power is self-defeating. The more authority the president has over executive branch organization the greater the likelihood duplicate or unnecessary agencies will ultimately be created since every president wants to appear like he’s done something dramatic to help the economy. This president has already shown he’s no different than the rest. Congress should reject his request.

People who really want to reform the federal bureaucracy can examine the presentations at this years’ Hillsdale Free Market Forum, where Charles Murray told us why we didn’t need an Education Department, Jerry Taylor blew away the rationale for an Energy Department, and I examined just how we could abolish the Commerce Department.