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Reorganization Rears Its Pretty Head: President Obama’s Surprise Proposal

Mordecai Lee

Out of the blue, during his State of the Union Address in late January, President Obama said he will propose a major reorganization of the federal government during this session of Congress. He quipped that “the last major reorganization of the government happened in the age of black-and-white TV.” It was a good laugh line, but perhaps a bit of a stretch. The last president who proposed (and implemented) a grand reorganization was Richard Nixon, in 1973. And I distinctly remember my grandparents owning a color TV by then…

I’m guessing the President’s speechwriters may have overlooked Nixon’s oft-forgotten reorganization and instead were hearkening back to the reorganizations that were proposed by commissions chaired by former President Hoover, first for Truman, then for Eisenhower. Indeed, in the 1940s and 50s, TV was only black and white.

Public administration has had an on-again-off-again attitude towards reorganization. Dwight Waldo’s seminal Administrative State (1948) documented that ideas to reorganize the federal and other levels of government dated back to the beginnings of public administration over a century ago. Reformers viewed reorganization as the best approach to achieve a government that was efficient (i.e. less expensive, eliminate duplication) and that was rationally organized with a more effective management structure (i.e. like business administration). Beginning with President Taft, nearly every president urged Congress to reorganize the federal executive branch so that programs engaging in related activities would be in the same department. One of the most common examples of disorganization was that the National Park Service was in the Interior Department but the Forest Service was in the Department of Agriculture.

The high-water mark for public administration’s support for reorganization was Franklin Roosevelt’s Brownlow Committee. Comprising three major figures in the field (Louis Brownlow, Luther Gulick and Charles Merriam), it proposed many good-government reforms, including major reorganization of the Cabinet departments and executive agencies. (For near-verbatim notes of FDR’s briefing of Congressional leaders of the Committee’s recommendations, see the appendix in Herbert Emmerich’s Federal Organization and Administrative Management.) Congress wasn’t thrilled with those latter ideas and did not approve many of them.

That gets quickly to the nub of the matter. Congressional opposition to some non-structural reforms were based on institutional concerns that if a president gained more power to direct federal agencies, Congress’s role would be diminished. They were right. That’s why some of them accused FDR of promoting Brownlow Committee reforms because he wanted to be a dictator. It’s laughable accusation now, but was serious back then.

But the opposition to structural reorganization had more tangible reasons. First, Committee chairs feared reorganization might reduce the committee’s empire. So, for example, if the Forest Service were shifted to the Interior Department, the Agriculture Committee’s turf would be reduced and the Interior Committee’s increased. Potential losers tended to be louder than potential winners. A second source of opposition was special interest groups. When they had a cozy relationship with an agency, the last thing they wanted was for the agency to lose its autonomy and become part of a larger super-agency. Then it would be much harder to co-opt. So, the status quo had powerful built-in forces, automatically opposed to reorganization.

Still, FDR won some of the battles, such as creating the Executive Office of the President. Congress also delegated to him and his successors powers under the Reorganization Act. Presidents would be able to propose reorganizations (as long as they didn’t violate any statutes) and Congress would have a short window to veto them. No veto meant the reorganization could go into effect. For example, 30 years later, that’s how Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). After FDR, just about every president proposed grand reorganizations. The little ones generally passed, but not the big ones.

Fast forward to Richard Nixon. In his first term, he proposed creating four super-departments: Natural Resources, Human Resources, Community Development and Economic Affairs. Congress, of course, had little interest in upsetting the status quo. After Nixon was reelected, he did the unthinkable. He administratively reorganized the domestic bureaucracies without Congressional approval. He named four secretaries to serve simultaneously as super-secretaries, gave them offices with a small staff in the Executive Office Building and delegated to them the power to run their super-departments. USDA Secretary Earl Butz was to serve simultaneously as natural resources super-secretary; HEW Secretary Caspar Weinberger for human resources; HUD Secretary James Lynn for community development and Treasury Secretary George Schulz for economic affairs.

Congress was furious, especially an obscure senator, Sam Ervin (D-NC) the incoming chair of the Government Operations Committee. Nixon’s administrative reorganization denied his committee the central role over reorganization requiring Congressional action. Oddly, most of the senior scholars in public administration who had raved about FDR’s reorganization plans came up with reasons why Nixon’s wasn’t a good idea. In my opinion, it’s a fair assumption that their loathing of Nixon trumped their long-standing academic endorsement of reorganization to strengthen the president’s ability to manage the executive branch.

John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman were the two senior Nixon aides who most liked the reorganization. When they quit due to participation in the Watergate cover-up, the project lost its sponsors. Haldeman’s replacement, General Alexander Haig, told Nixon to dismantle the reorganization, so he could claim he now wanted a more open administration, with more direct access by all Cabinet members. By then, Nixon had fallen quite far from the heady days after being reelected. He was now struggling for political survival. He accepted Haig’s suggestion with alacrity. So, after less than half a year, the super-secretary reorganization was abandoned and the status quo ante restored.

How does this relate to Obama? I’d suggest two major conclusions. Given that reorganization has built-in opposition, Obama needs to create a political and legislative constituency to promote passage of his upcoming proposal.

So, first, I hope the White House will involve ASPA and NAPA in framing the reorganization plan and then that the members of the two organizations will actively and aggressively lobby Congress to approve it.

Second, Obama needs to develop allies within Congress who will be the ‘workhorses’ to push the bill through the legislative process and serve as antidote to all the committee chairs who will oppose it for parochial reasons. The chairs and ranking minority members of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform would be ideal. These four (and, ideally, some from leadership) should serve on the White House task force drafting the reorganization proposal so that they will have ownership of the plan when introduced in Congress. In short, Obama needs to learn from Nixon’s and his earlier predecessors’ experience: You need vocal and effective supporters of reorganization both within Congress and from the citizenry-at-large. Otherwise, history will repeat itself with the status quo winning by default.

ASPA member Mordecai Lee is professor of governmental affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He is author of Nixon’s Super-Secretaries: The Last Grand Presidential Reorganization Effort and Congress vs. the Bureaucracy: Muzzling Agency Public Relations (forthcoming, August 2011). Email: [email protected]

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