There are now several moving and overlapping parts to President Donald Trump’s streamlining, swamp-draining, “deconstruction of the administrative state” agenda.
Last week brought Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney’s memorandum for agency bosses on a “Comprehensive Plan for Reforming the Federal Government and Reducing the Federal Civilian Workforce.” They’ll have to report back in 180 days on streamlining, with public input.
Overlapping programs were highlighted, such as dozens of federal job programs but no one running the show. Mulvaney calls much agency activity, “costly solutions in search pf a problem”:
“The result has been too many overlapping and outdated programs, rules, and processes, and too many Federal employees stuck in a system that is not working for the American people.”
Overlap isn’t the real issue. It’s the existence of most programs and agencies, period. What is it exactly that agencies are doing? What are they there for? The premises of the supervisory state are the issue.
If we were starting with a blank sheet of paper, we may not keep most federal agencies .
Of course we did start with a blank sheet of paper at the Founding, and they didn’t create all these programs.
Larry Arnn of Hillsdale College noted the 12 Cabinet departments added to the original Secretaries of State and War. Somehow, we had houses before HUD, and we learned before the Education Department appeared on the scene.
Yet here we are. Are such agencies to be merely “lean, accountable, more efficient” rather than gone?
The founders didn’t seek to control us back then, yet our complex society is even harder, not easier, to supervise centrally.
But back to Trump’s “Bureaus Against Bureaucracy.” Alongside Mulvaney’s “Comprehensive Plan for Reforming Government,” we’ve recently seen:
- The establishment of Regulatory Reform Offices and Task Forces at each agency to cut out red tape (E.O. 13777, “Enforcing the Regulatory Reform Agenda“)
- Trump’s initial Executive Order on a Comprehensive Plan for Reorganizing the Executive Branch, now fleshed out by Mulvaney’s guidance and queries to agencies. Related to this are the proposals in the Trump Budget Blueprint to eliminate some agencies altogether, and to implement deep cuts in others such as the Environmental Protection Agency. More should come when the full budget proposal appears;
- New detailed guidance from OMB to agencies on carrying out Trump’s Executive Order 12771 “Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs” on implementing a cost freeze, and eliminating two rules for each new one implemented;
- Establishment of the Office of American Innovation tasked with bringing private sector business and management expertise, lessons and methods to bear on the bloat of a federal government that otherwise seeks only to expand (and to shore up longstanding concerns like Veterans Administration management).
The Trump administration’s actions here are the most aggressive aimed at reduction of bureaucracy since Reagan’s original regulatory oversight executive order cut both rules and number of pages in the Federal Register by more than a third.
But executive actions aren’t permanent; and, Congress created this bureaucracy and only Congress (or the states, when they finally get fed up) can reduce it.
For example, earlier executive orders also implemented regulatory task forces. Reagan implemented a “Task Force on Regulatory Relief”; Clinton’s had a “Regulatory Working Group.” Obama’s had agency “Retrospective Analyses,” yet there is more regulation than ever.
Or consider the Office of American Innovation. It exhibits the similar “good government” flavorings like the ones back when the fiscal budget was, alas, $2 trillion rather than $4 trillion. Some may recall Al Gore’s “Reinventing Government.”
But, with new directives like Mulvaney’s, the Innovation office does have some potential to actually streamline in such realms as technology implementation, information technology and procurement overhauls at agencies. Conceivably, the Innovation office could hasten the elimination of some substantial rather than marginal bureaus.
But it could also potentially side with big-government infrastructure programs that spend hundreds of billions, yet deteriorate decades later when the glow wears off, leaving inefficient government agency management apparent yet again. There are ways of engaging the private sector in building its own infrastructure rather than treating everything as a 19th-century public good when we live in the 21st century. So the new Mulvaney survey of unneeded government might serve as a brake on this worrisome component of the Trump agenda.
The administrative state’s century-long premise is that expertise consists in a priestly, guiding hand from above , for efficiency and safeguarding the public.
Some free market folks are in at EPA and FCC. But Trump appointing a head to the Department of Energy, rather than abolishing it like Republicans in the 90s promised, is today’s reality.
It’s a complex subject, but my favorite recent takedown of the administrative state’s premises is Steve Hayward’s “The Threat to Liberty,” and I highly recommend it, especially to those carrying out the new Trump/Mulvaney directives.
Even the aggressive Trump executive orders, which have truly stopped regulation temporarily, rely on “cost-benefit” analysis that belongs to another realm (private sector decision making) rather than collective action that ignores who wins and who loses from a particular intervention, but does it anyway so long as there are “net benefits.”
Real expertise means something else entirely in free economies; it means ensuring that the once-public and centralized endeavors of mankind are moved into the institutions of the voluntary, competitive marketplace. This, a rejection of administrative state premises, should guide Trump and Mulvaney streamlining initiatives.
Agencies were set up to cope with alleged market failure, in the days before more thorough incorporation into the wealth-creating sector of airspace, watersheds, spectrum and the like were possible, and before the rapid information provision of the Internet was possible.
Blueprints for the de-escalation of central power is the essence of what should count as agency expertise in today’s world. If Trump and Mulvaney can make agencies back off their brazenness, especially as applied to growing new sectors, the downsizing can take care of itself. That is, if Congress does its part and prevents agency interference in new areas where it hasn’t explicitly legislated authority.
The fiscal side gets most of the attention, and will again soon with the budget proposal. But stop giving agencies new “work” to do, stop appointing “commissioners” and “directors” in the first place, and budgets take care of themselves. The administrative/regulatory state drives much spending.