The modern debate over the administrative state and regulation parallels skirmishes over spending, the deficit, the debt, and the debt ceiling.
This week, first draft “Agency Reform Plans” are due in response to President Donald Trump’s March 13 executive order on a “Comprehensive Plan for Reorganizing the Executive Branch.” (E.O. 13781)
But the executive branch reorganization directive is probably the most sweeping. It is:
“…intended to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability of the executive branch by directing the Director of the Office of Management and Budget [OMB] to propose a plan to reorganize governmental functions and eliminate unnecessary agencies, components of agencies, and agency programs.”
As Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney describes in a detailed April 12 implementation memo (“Comprehensive Plan for Reforming the Federal Government and Reducing the Federal Civilian Workforce“), final Agency Reform Plans submitted in September 2017 will inform OMB’’s “comprehensive Government-wide Reform Plan for publication in the President’s FY 2019 Budget, including both legislative proposals and administrative actions.”
Clearly much of Trump’s reform plan is directed at agency workforce reductions. The “reorganizing” directive supercedes the earlier hiring freeze, but it all embraces a downsizing mindset not seen since that chronicled in former Office of Personnel Management Director Donald Devine’s Reagan’s Terrible Swift Sword: An Insider’s Story of Abuse and Reform Within the Federal Bureaucracy.
The Mulvaney memorandum cites objectives as:
- Create a lean, accountable, more efficient government that works for the American people;
- Focus the Federal government on effectively and efficiently delivering those programs that are the highest needs to citizens and where there is a unique Federal role rather than assuming current programs are optimally designed or even needed;
Italics I added here underscore an often overlooked tension between the legitimate scope of federal government as such, as distinct from the common default perception of agencies as offering “services” and the public as “customers.” In reporting and sorting out the bureaucracy, the mingling of agencies so-called “budget” or “transfer” rules addressing such governmental operations, with “legislative rules” boasting the regulatory mandates on private entities we normally associate with bureaucracy, complicate matters.
There is considerable synergy between this directive and Trump’s February executive order on “Enforcing the Regulatory Reform Agenda” (E.O. 13777) setting up “Regulatory Reform Officers” and “Regulatory Reform Task Forces” at agencies, in terms of the big questions over what should and what will all these agencies do in years to come.
Together these orders present the most explicit linkages between the fiscal and regulatory realms in, well, pretty much ever.
Thousands of recommendations for reform were received by OMB over the summer.
But does the so-called “deep state” have anything to worry about?
Democrats have no interest in aiding a Trump “revolution” of this nature, and agencies themselves are actively involved in undermining a presidential downsizing agenda. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich talks of a “vast upsurge of resistance inside government,” on Facebook. A Washington Post headline showcased, “Resistance from Within: Federal Workers Push Back Against Trump.” And there are other examples. The #resist hashtag prevails, and agencies can be entrepreneurial when it comes to protecting themselves, with plenty media on their side.
And observe the contrast in where we stand now, even in the Trump administration, compared to the 1990s “Contract with America” era when the Departments of Energy, Education and Commerce were to be eliminated. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry’s no longer wishes to abolish the Energy Department. And even Mr. Trump wishes to retain one of the primary candidates for this very kind of downsizing exercise, the Export-Import Bank.
My organization has called for dramatic scaledowns of the Commerce Department, the Federal Communications Commission, elimination of the Ex-Im Bank, and many other programs, for example, as well as more recently a slate of downsizing reforms for the Trump administration specifically.
The administration and OMB can do some important things on their own; there is great potential in Mulvaney’s coordination of “key crosscutting proposals,” where, “In addition to agency-specific reform proposals, OMB will work with agencies and key stakeholders to develop reform proposals that involve multiple agencies.” This matters in an ongoing process that overlaps so heavily with the president’s regulatory reform enforcement agenda being constructed simultaneously.
There’s still a separation of powers, even after Obama’s “pen and phone,” so Congress will need to enact major reforms.
But there’s hope. Democrats of yesteryear lent wide bipartisan support to major administrative reforms — unfunded mandates relief, small business regulatory relief, and even the law that allowed several of Obama’s “midnight rules” to be overturned this year (the Congressional Review Act).
Moreover, prominent reforms of today, including Trump’s one-in, two-out and regulatory freezes, and the idea of a regulatory “budget,” have bipartisan pedigree.
The new directives also align actions with the “Annual Performance Plan” components of the Government Performance and Results Act. Here, for example, the yet-to-be-created employee performance standards can inform the reviews of the agency Regulatory Reform Task Forces as well.
To reiterate, the Mulvaney memorandum instructs agencies that:
“The purpose of the Agency Reform Plan is for the head of each agency to identify how she/he proposes to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability of her/his respective agencies. As part of their planning efforts, agencies should focus on fundamental scoping questions (i.e. analyzing whether activities should or should not be performed by the agency). (p. 6)”
Emphasis added again; in contrast to the administrative state and its legitimization of unelected central power, much of what transpires in Washington is, from the framer’s federalist standpoint, not part of the function of a national government.
All told, reconstructing the organization chart for departments and agencies, trimming some costs, and eliminating duplication and tweaking the scope of the bureaucracy do not quite constitute “deconstructing the administrative state.” No need to #resist sensible reforms.
The assessment of what should stay and what should go will need to extend beyond improving agencies as customer service arms of Washington, and examine core rationales for existence and the basic role of the federal government.
Originally posted to Forbes.