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How Would Obama Wield Agency-Reorganization Power?

January 13, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
President Obama asked Congress Friday to give him authority to consolidate executive branch agencies. Margaret Warner speaks with Roll Call's Steven Dennis and Bloomberg News' Hans Nichols about what would happen if Mr. Obama is granted the reorganization power that no president has had for almost 30 years.
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RAY SUAREZ: President Obama today said he wants fast-track authority to consolidate federal agencies. He called on Congress to give him that reorganization power that no president has had for almost 30 years.

Margaret Warner has more.

MARGARET WARNER: The president invited business owners to the White House to hear his proposal.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Today, I am calling on Congress to reinstate the authority that past presidents have had to streamline and reform the executive branch.

MARGARET WARNER: That fast-track authority expired in 1984, when Ronald Reagan was president. If Congress restores it, President Obama could propose cost-cutting consolidations and be guaranteed an up-or-down vote within 90 days.

BARACK OBAMA: These changes would help small business owners like you. It would also help medium and large businesses. And as a consequence, they would help create more jobs, sell more products overseas, grow our economy faster, improve our quality of life.

There's a certain amount of optical, Michael Deaver-esque aspect to what happened today. They bring in a bunch of small business people, they have an event, and they talk about how they are going to help them.Hans Nichols, Bloomberg News

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Obama said his first consolidation proposal would be to merge six agencies: the business and trade functions of the Commerce Department, the Small Business Administration, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Export-Import Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and the Trade and Development Agency.

The president initially raised the need for consolidation during his State of the Union address last year, arguing that agency jurisdictions have absurdly overlapped.

BARACK OBAMA: 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.

(LAUGHTER)

(APPLAUSE)

MARGARET WARNER: Today, White House officials said merging the trade and business agencies would save $3 billion over 10 years, and eliminate 1,000 to 2,000 federal jobs, through attrition.

Republican leaders in Congress pledged careful review of his consolidation idea, but also expressed caution. A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said: “It’s interesting to see the president finally acknowledge that Washington is out of control.”

And a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner said: “We hope the president isn’t simply proposing new packaging for the same burdensome approach.”

At the same time, Republican leaders on the House, Energy and Commerce Committee welcomed the president’s plan, and said it should also include meaningful regulatory reform.

And for more on the proposal and reaction from the business community and Capitol Hill, we’re joined by Steven Dennis, who covers the White House and Congress for Roll Call, and Hans Nichols, a White House reporter for Bloomberg News.

And welcome to you both.

So, beginning with you, Steve Dennis, fill out this just a little more for us. He’s really asking for two different votes.

STEVEN DENNIS, Roll Call: Yes.

The first thing he wants is this fast-track authority which hasn’t been around for a while that gives the president really a lot more power to go to Congress and say, here’s my plan to reorganize government. I want a vote up or down in 90 days, no filibusters, no messing with it in committee, no tacking on all these amendments.

And the idea here is, hey, we have a very complex government. It keeps getting more and more complex. We keep having more layers added to it. And nothing ever seems to get killed. And the president is saying that presidents need this authority to cut through the special interests and other groups who come in, and every time you have a little bit of cutting in any proposal in any agency say, hey, we really should delay that.

So that’s sort of an interesting issue that’s going to cause bipartisan heartburn on Capitol Hill, for obvious reasons, because it takes the power out of the hands of committee chairmen. Whenever you mess with the filibuster, you are going to have folks in the Senate who are concerned about that.

MARGARET WARNER: And, then, Hans Nichols, the second thing he is saying is, if you were to give me this authority, then my first target of opportunity would be these six trade and business agencies. Is that right?

HANS NICHOLS, Bloomberg News: That’s right. It’s really an effort to sort of consolidate the trade functions in the U.S. government.

You know, you look at some of the other countries that the U.S. competes with in terms of exports, and they house their enforcement mechanisms which we do in USTR and their sort of promotion mechanisms in the same body, in the same agency. That’s the idea here, is to put everything together, have one-stop shopping.

It’s not so much the big corporations that this is intended to help. But it’s the smaller ones. And that’s why in part the administration also, the president, is elevating the Small Business Administration to Cabinet level, so two birds with one stone, at least on that front.

MARGARET WARNER: And, one, has the business community been pushing for this, as he said? And, two, what’s been their reaction?

HANS NICHOLS: Well, the reaction so far, at least the ones that the president invited there, has been positive. That’s to be expected.

There’s a certain amount of optical, Michael Deaver-esque aspect to what happened today. They bring in a bunch of small business people, they have an event, and they talk about how they are going to help them.

In terms of USTR, there are some equities there and some groups that might not be totally excited about this, because USTR — and this is the agency…

MARGARET WARNER: The special trade rep, yes.

HANS NICHOLS: Right. This is the special trade rep. This is the U.S. Office for Trade Representatives. It’s Cabinet-level, and it’s very lean, it’s very flinty.

And some of the past USTR reps have been quite pleased with how they have gone forward and the sort of ideas they have negotiated and their enforcement after it. And the idea that this sort of nimble agency will be part of a larger one is something that they might not like, and some of the people that have benefited from this USTR in the past, they may be upset with it.

MARGARET WARNER: And, in fact — Steve Dennis, in fact, the Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means and the Democratic chairman of the Senate Finance said exactly that. Why should we take this lean agency and put it in some bureaucratic behemoth?

Now, just one more substantive question about what he’s proposing. Are they proposing a real restructuring, or is this just going to be sort of under one title and one website?

STEVEN DENNIS: Well, I think it is a real restructuring, because you have all kinds of things that are in the Commerce Department right now, like NOAA, which deals with oceans and the atmosphere, and you’re like, why is that in the Commerce Department?

And the president made that point about the salmon, that was why is that in the Commerce Department? The president said today it was because President Nixon didn’t like his interior secretary and it should be in the Interior Department. The majority of the Commerce Department’s budget is NOAA.

So the idea…

MARGARET WARNER: And that will all now go to Interior.

STEVEN DENNIS: That will all go to Interior.

MARGARET WARNER: Interior.

STEVEN DENNIS: But you even have — even on that question, you even had Sen. Begich from Alaska saying, you know, seafood is a really important commerce industry in Alaska. I’m not so sure I like this idea.

And it just shows you that, whether it be the USTR, and you have bipartisan opposition to merging that into whatever this new agency is called — and they still don’t have a name — or you end up having people saying, well, even this NOAA thing that a lot of people in both parties think, well, why is this in Commerce, you still have folks saying, well, I don’t want it to get less funding. I don’t want it to have a smaller impact.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Hans, going to you, what message is the White House trying to send politically with this?

HANS NICHOLS: Well, it’s a very good point, because we have been talking about the substance of this.

There’s a heavy element of politics. And that is, the White House is looking for fights to pick with Congress. I mean, before, over the spring and summer, when they were milling this and talking about what they were going to do, the question they had internally — and it was a debate, really — was whether or not you go big or whether or not you go small.

And if you went small, you might be able to get something through Congress. Well, now the prospect of anything getting through Congress is so small, so really just — you know, just very difficult to see how it’s going to happen, that they decided to go big in part to sharpen differences, show the distinctions, because, for the next of 2012, for the rest of 2012, the president is clearly going to be looking for ways to distinguish himself from Congress.

This is a way to get around Republicans and get to the right of them. I mean, he’s essentially proposing eliminating the Department of Commerce, which we had heard during the campaign trail from a certain governor of a certain state down in Texas. So, this is a way for them to get around that and really pick a fight and say, look, we’re for consolidation. We’re for a leaner federal government.

STEVEN DENNIS: One of the problems here, though, is that the president is going to have to sell his own party on this.

I’ve been told that the president and the White House didn’t really go to a bunch of Democratic senators and powerful Democrats in the House and say, hey, is it a good idea that I’m going to take away the filibuster power, and if I lose reelection, suddenly you’re going to be left at the mercy of potentially a Republican majority?

That’s how there’s sort of an institutional sales job that he’s going to have to do.

MARGARET WARNER: So, briefly, are you saying even the consolidation idea could have trouble, not to mention merging the six trade and business agencies?

STEVEN DENNIS: Well, the reality is anything that the president proposes this year is going to have — is going to cause — have all kinds of trouble getting through Congress.

But this — the interesting thing to me about this proposal is that this gives him a chance to go on offense on an issue that he’s been playing defense on for the past year. The Senate House Republicans have been battering him over the deficit and spending. He could at least say, look, I want this authority to cut spending, to make government more efficient, and look who is standing in the way: Congress.

MARGARET WARNER: And brief final word from you, Hans, about the prospects on the Hill.

HANS NICHOLS: Very small, very — just very thin, in part because the White House did no prep work, or very little prep work on the Hill to prepare them for this. If they had been serious about getting this through, they would have had more interaction with the committee chairmen, the committees of jurisdiction. So, I’d say small.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Hans Nichols of Bloomberg News and Steve Dennis of Roll Call, thank you both.

STEVEN DENNIS: It’s good to be here.