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Is Nimble Government Even Possible?

David Callahan

Remember President Obama's big proposal to streamline how the federal government promotes business and trade? No, you probably don't. That's because the proposal disappeared without a trace last year after meeting resistance from various powers that be and getting forgotten by the very president who offered it. Welcome to the dispiriting world of government reform.

Obama's 2012 reform proposal, some policy wonks may recall, was both modest and sensible. It sought to combine six different agencies -- including the U.S. Trade Representative and the Small Business Administration -- into a single entity that could better foster economic activity and exports. As Obama explained about the existing bureaucratic spaghetti: “Right now, there are six departments and agencies focused primarily on business and trade in the federal government. It’s redundant and inefficient."
Given a struggling economy and the fierce competition the U.S. faces from countries with black belts in geo-economics, it's super important to strengthen the federal capacity for promoting growth and exports. Indeed, people have been talking for two decades about the need to create a U.S. equivalent of Japan's powerful Ministry of International Trade and Industry. But bureaucratic duplication has instead been the norm, and the situation is even worse than Obama described. In fact, a Congressional Research Service report in 2010 found that 20 different agencies are involved in promoting U.S. exports, most with their own budget line items for this mission. 
Coordination among these agencies has been famously weak, with each pursuing distinct goals -- e.g., USDA promotes agricultural products -- and the federal government never pulling together a coherent national export strategy. Meanwhile, various congressional or executive proposals to streamline things, many with bipartisan support, have failed to go anywhere. And now we can add last year's plan by President Obama to that list. (Jeffrey Zients, the current ACA fix-it guy, was the architect of the proposal.)
One reason the plan was stillborn was because Obama requested greater authority to reorganize the executive branch, and today's Congress doesn't want to given him additional power. But the reasons go much deeper. No sooner was the plan announced, than Congressional allies of the endangered agencies mobilized for battle, particularly those who wanted to preserve the USTR. 
A 2011 report by the Center for American Progress noted that government reorganization is: "not for the faint of heart." Everyone is for reform in the abstract, but the "allure fades when presidents confront the winners and losers of change. . . . No unit of government is so obscure or redundant that an agency head or member of Congress will not stoop to defend it." 
CAP's report made some useful suggestions for winning these battles, such as truly committing the political will needed to win. But, seriously, what president wants to spend scarce capital in this fashion -- especially since the fruits of reform are unlikely to be seen in the near term? Anyway, presidents tend to only act when political pressure forces them to, and there is no outside lobby for reforming government. 
That's where progressives need to come in. If we are really the people who believe in government as an effective agent of change, we need to lead the charge to make it such an agent -- as opposed to an alphabet soup where the left hand doesn't know what the right is doing, even on the most crucial of national issues.
Alas, fixing government hasn't been high on the left's agenda lately or, really, ever if you don't count various efforts to make government more transparent and accountable, as well as to reduce the role of money. All those efforts are crucial, but they are not the same as making sure that government entities can actually get stuff done. 
Long term, though, the progressive agenda of wanting government to do more won't get very far if we can't make the government we already have work better.