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Yes, Streamline Government

David Callahan

Republicans have made a big deal about the need to streamline government, so you'd think they would have cheered President Obama on today when he proposed bold action to consolidate federal agencies to increase efficiencies and impact.

Of course, though, that's not how Washington works. Today's GOP is reflexively against nearly any idea proposed by Obama -- even if it's their own idea (like cutting taxes to stimulate the economy, as we saw in the payroll tax extension flap last month).

To be fair, Republicans didn't come out and oppose Obama's request for more authority to merge government agencies. But they did use his earnest speech on modernizing government and saving tax dollars as a chance to knock the president. From Speaker Boehner's office:

Given the president’s record of growing government, we’re interested to learn whether this proposal represents actual relief for American businesses or just the appearance of it. . . However, eliminating duplicative programs and making the federal government more simple, streamlined, and business-friendly is always an idea worth exploring.

And from Senator McConnell's office:

Americans want a government that’s simpler, streamlined, and secure. . . . So after presiding over one of the largest expansions of government in history, and a year after raising the issue in his last State of the Union, it’s interesting to see the president finally acknowledge that Washington is out of control.

There you have it. Washington's dysfunctional partisan culture in a nutshell.

Let's be clear: President Obama took a political risk in proposing to streamline the government, since the proposal could be seen as legitimizing the conservative narrative that government is wasteful. The GOP response will serve to remind other politicians why they shouldn't take risks or give even an inch to the other side.

As for Obama's proposal itself, it looks like a great idea from what I have seen so far. The federal government really is a mess, as any number of authoritative and nonpartisan reports have documented over the years. Nearly ten years ago, the so-called Volcker Commission called for a sweeping reorganization of a federal government that was marked by "jurisdictional chaos." The reported stated:

Those who enter the civil service often find themselves trapped in a maze of rules and regulations that thwart their personal development and stifle their creativity. . . . Those who enter public service often find themselves at sea in an archipelago of agencies and departments that have grown without logical structure, deterring intelligent policymaking. The organization and operations of the federal government are a mixture of the outdated, the outmoded and the outworn.

More recently, a GAO report last year identified numerous areas of duplication, overlap, and fragmentation within the government. Among its findings were that 15 different agencies were involved in ensuring food safety, 80 different programs in a half dozen agencies were geared toward economic development, 44 programs were involved in job training, and so on. The national security establishment in particular is replete with duplicative bureaucratic functions, the GAO report found -- citing 13 major areas of overlap or duplication in Departments of Defense and Homeland Security.

This mess needs to be cleaned up, and it's better that this challenge be handled by a president who believes in government. More broadly, progressives need to fully embrace the goal of modernizing and streamlining government at all levels. That's an urgent imperative both to rebuild public trust in government, which has recently hit record lows, and to ensure that government is an effective vehicle for delivering change -- and stretching tax dollars to get the most bang for the buck.